The Evolving Antichrist


Daniel Burke details the growing tendency among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians to believe that the Antichrist will be Muslim, noting that beliefs about the Antichrist “often [reflect] the era’s deepest anxieties.” But it wasn’t always this way:

For many early Christians…the Antichrist was not a particular person. It was spiritual figure who lurked in the hearts of all believers, luring them toward sin and heresy, said Shuck. By the 12th century, the Antichrist – often seen as a human inhabited by Satan – had become a tool for identifying an enemy, fomenting fear and assembling an army. “The Antichrist moves a long way from Augustine’s view of something that we all face inside us,” Shuck said, “to being very much an external battle with concrete figures.”

Below is the caption for the above painting, “Saint Francis Defeats the Antichrist,” on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

This painting is one of seventeen surviving canvases from a series of forty-nine devoted to the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, commissioned in 1691 from Cristóbal de Villalpando—the preeminent artist of colonial Mexico—for the Franciscan convent in Antigua, Guatemala. In this scene Francis thrusts a sword into the Antichrist’s chest as the prophet Elijah, directly behind the saint, charges brandishing a flaming sword. The Antichrist’s supporters, grouped at the right, recoil in horror. The top of the composition, trimmed off sometime in the painting’s history, showed a battle between angels and demons, whose legs are still visible.

This violent confrontation is not described in any of the biographies of the famously peaceful saint. It was likely devised by the artist with the guidance of his Franciscan patrons, making it the earliest known example of this unorthodox iconography, which is found only in Mexico. The powerful narrative in this painting underscores Villalpando’s flair for the type of dramatic composition that epitomizes the Baroque era.