In a unique stylistic choice in the history of fine art, angsty Symbolist painter Jean Delville chose to depict an allegorical Satan dominating his treasured souls while standing on a coral reef.
The painting, The Treasures of Satan (Les Trésors de Satan, 1895, oil on canvas), makes a choice that appears as almost a type of early fan fiction, or what-if to modern eyes. Is Hell underwater?
A strange painting in time of strange paintings, Jean Delville has made some interesting choices. Let's take a brief look at them.
When studying fine art history, it's essential to try and understand the times and stylistic trends contemporary to the artist's time period. Symbolist art in Europe at the end of the 19th century was steeped in mysticism and cult symbols, and revived the practice of depicting mythology and Biblical allegories - though instead of the Assumption and feats of Hercules we may have seen in the Renaissance, Symbolists were more inclined to paint works about Salome being confronted by the ghostly head of John the Baptist, or depicting the prey of the Sphinx.
The 1890s were a time of angst in the face of the industrial revolution and a time to romanticize the past while focusing, perversely, on the nightmares of mythology. Delville was more concerned with dreams than Biblical punishment when he painted The Treasures of Satan. The world under the ocean presents an otherworldly backdrop.
Satan possesses monstrous octopus tentacles instead of the expected wings, and his fiery hair echoes the shape of the red Paragorgia coral scattered about the reef. The treasured souls appear to be in a state of erotic reverie instead of the expected anguish or fatal resignation we'd expect for eternal torment. The molten river of bodies seems to be bypassing a deeper cave tunnel to the right of the painting—is the ocean an antechamber to Hell? The whole scene is lit by their bodies, underwater and yet with scarcely any blue or green to be found.
I wish I wish I wish! that Jean Delville and some of his contemporaries (Odilon Redon also loved ocean creatures) had known about the black smokers, the hydrothermal vents. Imagine a painting twinned with this one, with Satan reclining amidst sulphurous black smokers, and a crown of tube worms. I can't help but imagine that the alien-ness of the hydrothermal vents would have appealed to the Symbolists immmensely. But the hydrothermal vents were not discovered for another seven decades.
While we shouldn't assign modern meaning to paintings of the past as a general rule, I cannot help it with Delville's The Treasures of Satan. This week, UNESCO may decide to list the Great Barrier Reef as an endangered World Heritage Site with an outlook described officially as "poor", it makes me wonder if the image of Satan embedding human bodies into a reef under a fiery ocean evokes more of our own fears than the fears of the Symbolists.