Devil face discovered hidden in a fresco by Giotto (+1337)

From The History Blog comes this very cool story about a detail hidden in a painting by Giotto, now “discovered”.

Devil in the details.

A restorer working on a fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi has discovered a the face of a devil hidden in the clouds. Medievalist and St. Francis expert Chiara Frugoni divined the demonic presence in fresco number 20 out of a series of 28 depicting the life of St. Francis as written by St. Bonaventure. Bonaventure was the seventh Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor and was commissioned by the Order to write the official biography of St. Francis in 1260. Fresco 20 is the death and ascension of St. Francis, painted by Giotto between 1296 and 1304.

St. Francis is shown lying on his death bier, surrounded by mourning friars while his soul is taken to heaven by a host of angels. Bonaventure described the scene in Chapter XIV of the hagiography: “In the hour of transit of the blessed Francis a friar saw his soul ascend to the heavens in the form of an enormously bright star.” The profile of the demon is on the right side of a cloud underneath the bright star, staring at the crotch of an angel.

“It’s a powerful portrait, with a hooked nose, sunken eyes and two dark horns,” Ms Frugoni said in an article in a forthcoming issue of the St Francis art history periodical.

“The significance of the image still needs to be delved into. In the Middle Ages it was believed that demons lived in the sky and that they could impede the ascension of human souls to Heaven.

“Until now it was thought that the first painter to use clouds in this way was Andrea Mantegna, with a painting of St Sebastian from 1460, in which high up in the sky there’s a cloud from which a knight on horseback emerges. Now we know that Giotto was the first (to use this technique).”

The figure hasn’t been seen until now because it’s almost impossible to spot looking up from the floor of the basilica. It took carefully examination of close-up photographs to find the little devil.

Sergio Fusetti, the chief restorer of the basilica, notes that theology may not have been Giotto’s entire motivation. He could have included the demon as a private joke, perhaps to spite someone who had done him wrong, or perhaps just for the fun of having a hidden image in the clouds.

There are some more pictures — unfortunately all of them small — on the Franciscan website.

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  1. Slappo says:

    I can’t see it… I’ve been staring at the clouds for a few minutes and I just don’t see anything that looks like it could be the devil, even reading the description of what it looks like.

    Does anyone else not see it or am I just blind to evil? lol.

  2. RichR says:

    I think this is a stretch.

    This reminds me of the “Three Men and a Baby Ghost”.

  3. Mary Jane says:

    This is SO cool. Gonna re-post today on my own blog.

    Btw, there is evidence out there that snopes is biased and fake. Don’t believe everything you read on snopes!

  4. Jerry says:


    Click on the top image to view a larger version with the devil’s head circled.

  5. Denis says:

    I wonder whether it might be a reference to the Life of St. Anthony:

    “For he was astonished when he saw against what mighty opponents our wrestling is, and by what labours we have to pass through the air. And he remembered that this is what the Apostle said, ‘according to the prince of the power of the air Ephesians 2:2.’ For in it the enemy has power to fight and to attempt to hinder those who pass through…”

  6. pm125 says:

    Where the cloud is at the top of the friars’ heads, it looks like there are a couple of gargoyle-y heads and the face of a lion. This is much more interesting than those refrigerator door pictures and the choice of modern art in that lectionary (creepy) amid the selections shown back a while ago. This painting has more truth to it as evil is in its place as the story is told to us.

  7. Joan A. says:

    Remember lying on your back as children, looking at clouds?
    “I see a pony!”
    “Look there’s a flower!”
    “There’s an elephant!”

    Seems this “devil” is possibly a similar type of experience, but hey, I’m not an expert on Giotto so what do I know?

  8. Archicantor says:

    Gotta love the high medieval liturgical vesture in this scene: the ample surplices on the servers/torchbearers; the apparelled alb, the long, thin, crossed stole, and the long, thin maniple (of a different colour) on the priest. Interesting to see an aspergillum and aspersorium, too.

    It looks as if Francis is lying on the cilicium (hair mat) on which the dying were placed after they received viaticum and were at the point of death. The painting accords nicely with the words that would be chanted at the moment of death: Subvenite sancti dei, occurrite angeli domini, suscipientes animam eius, offerentes eam in conspectu altissimi.

    The affection being shown to Francis’s body by the friars in the foreground is very touching.

  9. wellhowcome says:

    One of the hardest things to avoid when painting is the unintended image of a person, animal or thing; especially when using the type of brush strokes that suggest a cloud. As a mixed media/assemblage artist I often have to rework areas because others see an image or images that I had not intended to be there.
    This may be such an unplanned image.

  10. Joe in Canada says:

    I don’t see it particularly.
    Orthodoxy has a teaching of aerial toll houses staffed by demons who try to claim the soul of a departed Christian as the soul is guided upwards through the air by its guardian angel.

  11. I see the face. It’s not so much looking at the angel as looking away from the Mass taking place on the ground and from what’s going on Above. Sort of a “Hmph!”

    But if it’s intentional, it’s kind of an odd choice to put it in a center cloud, because it looks like it’s supposed to be the Shekinah kind of glory cloud. So maybe it’s a sign that it’s not a Shekinah?

  12. asperges says:

    I think someone has a very vivid imagination.

  13. mibethda says:

    When a much enlarged view of that section of the fresco is examined, there is no doubt that a face is depicted. I am somewhat doubtful, however, that it is intended to portray the devil. The element that lends itself to that interpretation is the dark marking on the top of the head which some view as horns. This might be so, or it might simply be a foreign artifact. I tend to see it as the latter.

  14. Random Friar says:

    The Devil is in the details, but this is too fine a detail for me to find him. Not saying it’s not possible or even probable, just that I cannot seem to find him there.

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