Feature Articles – A French Peacock Angel
In a remote village in the French Ariège region, a rock-hewn church displays a unique depiction: in the 12th century, someone painted a peacock angel – Melek Taus, popularly known as Satan – on the church’s ceiling. Answers to the why and who have never been found.
by Philip Coppens
The Yezidis in Iraq are said to have worshipped “the devil”, as their chief deity was Melek Taus, known as the Peacock Angel. The Peacock Angel is nothing more – or less – than a human being depicted with wings, making it a standard depiction of most angels, were it not for the fact that the peacock angels’ wings number four and look like the tail of a peacock.
Melek Taus had made the world from the scattered pieces of a cosmic egg (in some renditions, of a pearl) in which his spirit had previously resided. “The Black Book”, the Yezidi equivalent of the Christian Bible, states: “In the beginning God created the White Pearl out of his most precious Essence; and He created a bird name Anfar. And He placed the pearl upon its back, and dwelt thereon forty thousand years. On the first day, Sunday, He created an Angel called Azazil, which is Melek Taus, the chief of all.”
Melek Taus, or Azazil, was therefore the chief of the angels. Azazil is an Arab rendering of Azazel, one of the leaders of the Watchers, a subcategory of what is generally referred to as angels. However, Azazel was also a name given by the Christians to the devil and seeing that he was the first chief of the angels, he quickly became identified with Lucifer. Another reason for the Yazidis’ reputation of being devil worshipers is because another name of Melek Taus was Shaytan, the same name the Koran has for Satan. From here, claiming that the Yezidis were devil worshippers was a small hop that most easily could make. The Bible, of course, states that Lucifer was cast out of heaven, replaced by Michael as the leader of the angels. Satan was said to have to spend his time on Earth or the underworld, or Hell, depending on which interpretation one wants to adhere to. His crime was that he had not bowed before Adam, for which according to Christian tradition, he was expelled from Heaven for good. The Yezidis’ perspective is however far more complex. They say that after demoting him from his position as leader of the angels, God forgave Azazel, reinstating him to Heaven.
Despite being forgiven, his name was seldom mentioned and it is said that when it was spoken aloud, the person uttering it would be struck blind. Even though they had a different perspective on what happened to Azazel, the Yezidis definitely seemed to treat the Peacock Angel similarly to the devil in Christianity.
However, that would be an all too Western perspective. The Yezidis do not believe in a personified evil – the devil or Satan. Instead, they argue that the source of evil is in the heart and spirit of individual men and women. There is therefore no concept of “original sin”, which is so paramount in Christianity.
Equally, there was apparently a very good reason why Melek Taus refused to bow before Adam. Adam was created from dust and earth, and God gave life to Adam from his own breath. When asked to bow before Adam by God, Melek Taus refused, stating he could not submit to another being, giving this reason: “I am from your illumination while Adam is made of dust.” God apparently praised him for not blindly complying. He made him the leader of all angels, as well as his deputy on Earth. For Christianity, his unwillingness to bow was a sign of his pride, but for the Yezidis, it was because the angel realized it was actually an act of deference, for a creature with more divine light – more Godness – in him should not bow for a creature that has less of the divine in him. They see it as a test, and Melek Taus alone passed it.
Ever since, for the Yazidis, Melek Taus was the representative of God on Earth and came down to Earth on the first Wednesday of Nisan (April), which they identify with the New Year. Worshipping a supreme being, with domination over world affairs, who reports into God, is not unique to the Yezidis. The Cathars in France were said to be aware of a Master of the World, which they not necessarily worshipped as such, but which they did include in their pantheon. They, like so many other traditions, felt that the Creator Deity was so far removed from our world that we could only experience him through a series of emanations, one of which was the Master of the World. In the village of Rennes-le-Château, the enigmatic priest Bérenger Saunière installed a devil at the entrance of his church. This Rex Mundi, King of the World. He is depicted as the devil, but the title of “King of the World” was – before the Church had their way – an honorary title, and not at all negative. Indeed, it was, as mentioned, the Church that fabricated an incarnation of all evil and labeled it the devil, whereas most religions and most heresies believed evil was in our hearts but not personified in one creature. Knowing that the Cathars were aware of a Master of the World, is it not remarkable to see that there is a depiction of a peacock angel in the French Ariège, in a small village that is almost literally in the shadow of the most famous Cathar stronghold of Montségur?
The peacock angel is depicted on the ceilings of the Church of Saint Mary in the small village of Vals, west of the medieval market town of Mirepoix. The church itself is quite unlike any other. Its construction suggests it was built on top of a former pagan sanctuary. Access is through a corridor in between two rock faces, making your way up to a church that was built on top of this rock outcrop, which was no doubt once a natural sanctuary. Some have argued that worship here goes back to at least 2000 years BC, but so far no-one has been able to accurately date this, if only because the Church made sure, by constructing this church, that evidence of pagan occupation of the site was quickly removed. What is known, however, is that the village itself dates back to at least the 9th century BC, based on ceramics and other artifacts found in the village. Excavations carried out in 2008 even found a collective burial ground that dated back to the end of the Neolithic Age, hence several thousands of years older than evidence of the village itself. Though one might assume that the intrigue here has to do with the pagan origins of the church, the mystery actually dates back to the Christian element of the site. On the church’s ceilings, one finds scenes from the Bible, as well as the unusual depiction of the peacock angel, dating from the 12th century, which is not only old, but also dating right back to the earliest origins of the church.
The first historical mention of the church is from 1104, when the rector of Vals, Annibal Graseries, was made a canon of the church of Saint Volusien in Foix, the main city of the Ariège region. In 1224, Pope Honorius III confirmed the rights of the Abbey of Foix over the church of Saint Mary of Vals. Since, the church has led a relatively quiet lifestyle, though for centuries, no-one knew about the enigmatic ceiling paintings. Its old frescoes were lost to history until Father J.M. Durand and Sylvain Stym-Popper discovered them in 1952. They were initially restored in 1956, and most recently between September 2006 and January 2008, by Jean-Marc Stouffs. It is said that in style, they are thought to have come from artists from Catalonia, also indicated by the physiognomy of the men. Art historians, specifically Marcel Durliat and Ainaud de Lasarte have identified the paintings to be the work of the atelier of the Master of Pedret. The colors used were black, red, yellow ochre, orange, grey and white.
Official reviews of the presence of a Peacock Angel state that the church of Vals is indeed special. For example, the representation of four advocating archangels is unique in France and is normally only found in Spanish Catalonia and in the Italian Lombardy regions. There are three archangels named and identified on the ceilings: Gabriel, Michael and our Peacock Angel, who is given the name of Pantasaron. Art historians say it is the only depiction of the Peacock Angel in the entire Roman world and the local inscription in the church describes him as an archangel that is rarely depicted.
Why would there be a representation of a Peacock Angel in this church has failed to be answered by most – or maybe one should say, the few – that have looked into the matter. It clearly was not an accident. And it was in a region where and at a time when Catharism flourished, making for quite a straightforward connection with this “heresy”.
It also appears that the locals realized what they were doing by depicting a peacock angel; they knew what it represented. In the 12th century, a chapel was added to the church; this chapel was dedicated to Saint Michael. Can it be seen as a coincidence that Michael dominated over the Peacock Angel which was painted below, thus mimicking the role the two angels play in the angelic hierarchy? Unlikely.
In the latter half of the 20th century, aficionados of the mystery of Rennes-le-Château pondered why a priest would depict a devil inside his church. But he was not alone – and definitely not the first. The church of Vals shows that depictions of the “devil” date back to the 12th century. At that time, it was not merely a devil; the manner in which He was depicted , was taken from a tradition that was present in the Middle East and which somehow found its way to the Ariège region. How? Catharism seems to be the only logical answer, for it is known that in the 12th century, various preachers from Eastern Europe came to this area of France, to spread the word of their heresy, which clearly included a different doctrine on the role of evil and the devil than Christianity. The Yezidis were seen as devil worshippers and soon, the Church would argue the Cathars were heretics and devil worshippers too – which is remarkable, as neither group believed in a personification of evil.