These Early Modern Gravity-Defying Sculptures Provoked Accusations of Demonic Possession

Allegorical Groups Representing the Four Continents: America by Francesco Bertos / Walters Art Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Demons and artists, it seems, pull from the same bag of tricks. They take ordinary matter and transform it into something more wondrous, more terrifying.

By Amelia Soth
Chicago-based Writer and Editor

Around 1737, the Italian sculptor Francesco Bertos was hauled before the Inquisition. The charge: He had colluded with the Devil to produce his latest set of gravity-defying marble statues. According to his accusers, they were simply too impressive to have been carved by human hands.

The devilish sculptures in question have long since disappeared, but one glance at Bertos’ surviving corpus will show you where the Inquisitors were coming from. Bertos’ skill takes the stone to its very limit. Under his chisel, the wind-swept cloaks of nymphs are rendered almost translucent. Veins throb on flexed ankles. Torches blaze gouts of swirling fire. And all of this is rendered from blocks of brittle marble, no more than 30 inches high.