Written by Francisco Rivera
Alexandre Cabanel’s The Fallen Angel directs our attention to the figure of the scorned Lucifer. The painting depicts a moment in the story of the War in Heaven, possibly the instant after he was expelled from the heavenly realm and arrived in the terrestrial. It was Lucifer’s prideful character and unbridled ambition which caused him to lust for power exceeding that of God. As a result of his failed attempt at insurrection, Lucifer was cast out of heaven and fell from grace. Interestingly enough, the War in Heaven has little to no biblical foundation: the event itself lacks presence as a story in scripture and is only vaguely referenced in a few books throughout the Bible. Cabanel’s painting is instead inspired heavily by John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost”, which retells these events in a dramatic narrative.
The nature of beauty, its qualities, the way we perceive it, and our drive to perpetuate it are all things that have entranced even the earliest of philosophers. Cabanel’s marriage of enchantment and sin into the carnally alluring image of Satan allows us to enter into this conceptual understanding of beauty. What constitutes beauty? Considering its seemingly arbitrary nature, is there a limit to its subjectivity? How can we consider the symbol of all baseness to be beautiful? Is this a result of our willingness to overlook the element of morality for the sake of perceiving beauty, or is beauty detached from morality entirely? If beauty stems from visual virtue, does that mean that everything which is beautiful must inherently have some degree of morality? These are all questions to consider when exploring the ways we conceptualize beauty within the framework of The Fallen Angel.
The psychological implications behind Lucifer’s expression are many: his tearful gaze is a reaction to shame, ego, rebellion, frustration, and exclusion at once. Lucifer’s covering of his face is very possibly a reaction to the skyscape behind him, a wounding reminder of both his fall from grace and a dimension he can no longer exist in. Concealment becomes the devil’s final safeguard from admission of defeat, an act which would strip him of the last thing he retains: dignity. And yet, upon closer inspection, his eyes tell us that the story is far from over, that the true act of rebellion has yet to begin, and that Satan’s motivation is rooted in revenge. It seems as if, even following this moment of total failure, Lucifer has not yet understood that insurgency against God will return him to the same place time and time again.
As if this nuanced suite of emotions didn’t already give the viewer much to ponder, Cabanel chose to depict the spiritual embodiment of all sin through the vessel of the ultimate crying casanova. Even his wings, much darker in comparison to those of the angels in the sky, are a mark of the sin he embodies; the vestigial white feathers could even be remnants of his former celestiality. The fallen angel’s outstretched leg, sculpted torso, and dually vulnerable and shielded expression all craft a convincingly attractive figure. Herein lies an element of cognitive dissonance, perhaps: despite our knowledge of Lucifer’s inherent evil, it is certainly hard to deny that he is, at the very least, striking.
Some would say they feel sympathy for the devil: his outward display of sensitivity makes him seem childlike, almost approachable. His visible state of abjection humanizes him, evoking pity from an empathetic viewer, possibly one who has seen themselves in such a situation. Others might attribute this same accessibility to his allure; after all, if Lucifer were to be depicted as monstrous, his aura of enticement would likely disappear. Another reading of the painting could lead one to believe that Lucifer’s display of emotion is entirely artificial, that the wounded guise he presents is nothing less than an instrument he uses to lure in the unknowing and compassionate. These subtle interpretive differences for The Fallen Angel bring into focus the ambiguous and subjective natures of both art and beauty.