An article by Maurice de Meyer in the French journal ‘Arts et Traditions Populaires’ from 1967, analyses a number of images of the Diable d’Argent of the kind looked at in a previous post. Although the subject of the Money Devil is known to have long predated the surviving prints (from catalogues and inventories back at least to the 16th century), very few images survive. The earliest known (at least to de Meyer in 1967) is an oddity from the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum dating from the second half of the 16th century.
It is an oddity because although the subject is the Money Devil, the iconography is completely different from all other extant versions. Whereas later versions have the devil flying over a townscape mesmerising tradespersons with dropped cash, here things are quite different. The Money Devil himself is very similar – he is covered in coins and carries bags of money – but he is rising into the air out of an open and overflowing treasure chest. He is surrounded on all sides by the great and the good – priests, monks, bishops, the Pope, kings, emperors and other nobles – all of whom are trying to shoot him down with a vast arsenal of weapons; from cannon to bows and arrows.
From descriptions of other images now lost, de Meyer demonstrates that the presentation of the Money Devil evolved as circumstances changed. The Rijksmuseum print was an image produced in the context of the Reformation, rather obviously appealing to the anti-Catholic sentiments of Protestant customers. One of the main charges laid against the Catholic Church was that it was obsessed with money and riches – hence the Pope’s appearance in the foreground firing a cannon. The poem that accompanies the image (in the three cartouches – translation attached) describes that mischievous nature of money, capturing the fascination of the great and the good alike. The theme of shooting in the image is probably a visual pun on the word ‘tirer’ which means both to shoot and to draw towards. The implication is that all these greedy people are trying to capture the Money Devil by shooting it down, but it just gets stronger the more they fire upon it.
Later versions of the image retain echoes of these early renditions – in nearly all cases someone (often, for reasons that escape me, the ‘Artist’) is seen shooting at the Devil with a musket. Whilst the ‘diable d’argent’ himself persists, the precise imagery is adapted to speak to contemporary themes. As the image evolves, the anti-clerical Reformation theme is quickly dropped in favour of comment on the money obsessions of the emergent bourgeoisie. Still in some ways a strong political message, but without the religious overtones. Basically whatever was deemed the socio-economic evil of the day found itself linked to the Money Devil.
Interestingly, de Meyer also argues that the Money Devil could be a modern manifestation of the ancient figure of Hermes the Trickster. As Norman O. Brown demonstrates in his analysis of the many roles he played in the ancient Greek pantheon (‘Hermes the Thief’, 1950), Hermes was the god of the market-place and often associated with money and trade. As noted in the previous Money Devil post, some of the Diable d’Argent figures include direct allusions to Hermes/Mercury as a Trickster.
The poem accompanying this image can be found here: Le Diable d’A .