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Imitatio satanae: The Devil as a role model in Symbolist art, literature and art criticism
Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies, History of Religions.
2010 (English)Conference paper (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

As is well known, Symbolism showed a considerable overlap with Western esotericism, and artists often genuinely considered themselves occult mystics pursuing an esoteric quest in their art. Many also displayed a special fascination for darkly tinged occultism, a fact that is too often discussed only in a very superficial manner. Aiming to rectify this negligence somewhat, this paper explores a practice in Symbolist literature and art that can be termed imitatio satanae. This etiquette paraphrases the term for the Christian practice of trying to emulate Christ’s example (imitatio christi), but instead seeks to capture the sympathy for the Devil evinced by some Symbolists.Symbolists and Decadents like Stanislaw Przybyszewski and Félicien Rops depicted themselves with demonic attributes, and hereby “followed the example of Satan”, viewed through the lens of the old Romantic re-interpretation of Milton’s Lucifer. This also fits in with a general tendency to sacralize symbols of sinfulness, typically in a manner part playful and part serious, that we find in artists as diverse as Franz von Stuck and Edvard Munch. None of these artists were, of course, Satanists in any strict sense. There is, however, one exception: the Pole Przybyszewski, who openly confessed such an allegiance. The paper therefore pays special attention to his philosophy of art, which both embraces typical Symbolist ideas and points forward to Expressionism. In Przybysewski’s texts from the 1890’s, the artist-superman is celebrated as a symbolic Satan, who critiques bourgeoisie values and rises above the “mediocre lambs of God”. Artists like Gustav Vigeland are portrayed in Przybyszewski’s art criticism as Promethean, demonic figures who practice imitatio satanae, something that is to a great extent a projection of the Pole’s own endeavors.The paper connects these ideas to practices in non-Satanist esoteric groups during the time period, such as The Golden Dawn in England and their assuming of “god-forms” in a ritual context. It also relates imitatio satanae, as a specifically Symbolist artistic concept, to the re-molding of the universe from a subjective position that the Romantics identified as a core theme in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Satanism, Symbolism, Decadence
National Category
History of Religions
Research subject
History of Religion
URN: urn:nbn:se:su:diva-49848OAI: diva2:379747
Between Light and Darkness – International Symposium on Fin-de-siècle Symbolism
Paper presented at "Between Light and Darkness – International Symposium on Fin-de-siècle Symbolism", Ateneum Art Museum: Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, Finland, December 9-10, 2010.Available from: 2010-12-19 Created: 2010-12-19 Last updated: 2011-10-11Bibliographically approved

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