Dooms and the mouth of hell in the late medieval period
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A pitiful poor woman, shrunk and old
I am, and nothing learn'd in letter lore.
Within my parish cloister I behold
A painted Heaven where lutes and harps adore
And eke [also] an Hell whose damned souls seethe full sore:
One bringeth fear, the other joy to me.
(Quoted by E. Clive Rouse. Details at the foot.)
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|The gentleman on the left is a devil from the
famous 'doom' painting at Wenhaston church, Suffolk, painted in the early
His name is probably Tutiuillus. How do we know? read on.
A 'doom' shows the Last Judgement. Pevsner called this one 'distressingly
Wenhaston doom, now on display in the nave. Notice the blank spaces where the great crucifix ('rood') stood, with Mary and John either side.
|Many (perhaps most) medieval churches had dooms
painted on their walls, often above the chancel arch.
The Wenhaston doom is unusual (at least, amongst survivors) in that it is painted on wooden boards to fit the chancel arch.
Like most dooms, it was whitewashed over at the Reformation. It was discovered by accident in 1892 when the boards were taken out to be burnt, and rain washed the whitewash off.
Many others were uncovered last century. More than one hundred doom wall-paintings were known at the end of the 1800s, and some more have been discovered since.
The basic arrangement of the doom is fairly standardised, though the details vary:
Often, as here at Wenhaston, the Archangel Michael weighs the souls with the devil pulling down the scale of sin.
Christ in judgement, and the heavenly city.
|Here is St Thomas, Salisbury, Wiltshire. This
was repainted last century, but the details are well worth studying.
Amongst the damned are a bishop, a king and a queen. Was this Lollard
The picture above links directly to an excellent set of photographs, taken by Gilbert Inglefield school on their outing in 1998.
|Here's another doom, at Oddington in Bedfordshire.
The photo illustrates the hell mouth. You may just be able to see a king among the damned.
It is possible that preachers would point to these dooms in their sermons.
Although there seems to be no direct evidence for this, just listen to these extracts from medieval sermons, then compare them with the pictures of devils taking souls to the mouth of hell:
'Above hym shall be God, hys juge . . . upon the lefft syde shall [be] inffenyte develes to drawe them to everlastynge peyne.'
The devils 'then shall run to meet them with salutions of mocking laughter, dragging them to hell with their cudgels'.
(Quoted by G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, 1933).
|However, to modern eyes there is something melodramatic
about many of these devilish figures.
Was this because the painters were drawing on their memories of the various religious plays they had seen?
'I shall lead them . . . I have tyed them on a row', as one devil says in the Chester plays.
The Valenciennes Passion play (Bibl. Nat. MS. fr. 12536). (From Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1904, vol I., p. 393).
here for an on-line colour photo of the original - but with the right
hand end accidentally cut off, so the hell-mouth is missing!
|In the plays, hell was represented by a mouth,
big enough for the actors to pass through, perhaps with a castle or other
building behind. So one item in the accounts reads: 'Paide for payntyng
and makyng new hell hed, 12 pence'.
On the left is a black and white photo of a manuscript picture of 1547. It shows the scenery of the various stages of a French passion play.
On the right you can see the hell-mouth.
Smoke and fumes would issue from this during the play, horns would sound, drums and kettles would be banged.
In the 1557 accounts at Coventry: 'payd for keypyng of fyer at hell mothe, 4 pence'.
Hell-mouth (detail). (Le Livre d'heures d'Etienne Chevalier, Musee Conde, Chantilly, reproduced in G. Cohen, Le Theatre en France au Moyen Age, 1928.)
|In 1460, Jean Fouquet painted a mystery play
(French again) as background to his miniature of the martyrdom of St Apollonia.
Once again, the hell-mouth is being used by actors.
This is a black & white photograph of a detail of the manuscript picture, showing the hell mouth, to the right. It is part of a relatively small scaffolded booth, with a hell-mouth below and room for a couple of actors above.
Click here for a poor black and white photograph of the whole image.
Click here for a Victorian print of the whole image, easier to read than the photographs.
Drawing of the hell-mouth in the doom at Stratford.
|The doom at the guild chapel of the Holy Trinity,
Stratford, Warwickshire, had a hell-mouth (now largely disappeared) which
looked very like a piece of stage scenery.
It had a battlemented tower on top. A couple of devils are leaning over, blowing horns (like the Suffolk devil). 'My name is Tutiuillus, my horne is blawen', says one devil in the Towneley play.
Notice the convenient enclosed area in front, holding lost souls, which would have been visible to the audience.
English alabaster at Carcassone museum, (reproduced in W. L. Hildburgh, English alabaster carvings as records of the medieval religious drama, Archaeologia, 93, 1949)..
|The hell-mouth is an ancient symbol (dating back
at least to the ninth century in this context).
It is not only found in wall-paintings. Here is part of an English fifteenth-century alabaster, showing Christ releasing souls from hell (the Harrowing of Hell).
Once again, the hell-mouth has battlements on top, as though the carver was remembering a stage scene.
Notice the flames in the doorway, and, once again, the devil blowing
And here is part of an ivory diptych. On the left, St Peter welcoming
souls to heaven. On the right, the hell-mouth.
This is a Dutch manuscript. As usual, the hell-mouth is bottom right.
Lojo church (from Y. Hirn, Religious Art in Finland during the Middle Ages, 1921).
|The hell-mouth is widespread in continental Europe.
This is a doom in a church in Finland.
Linked to site. If this is slow-loading, click here for a copy.
|And this is a Danish wall-painting at Gudum,
More of these can be found on the excellent site, at http://orb.rhodes.edu/encyclop/culture/artarch/Danish/Danindex.html
Reproduced in John Cooper, Oliver the First, 1999.
|In England, these paintings were lost at the
Reformation. The mouth of hell more or less disappeared from popular religious
But here's a very late one - 1649. The picture is a satire against Oliver Cromwell. He is shown perched over an idealised hell-mouth (the eyes can be seen peering through).
|To find out more:
For wall paintings, see the excellent little book by E. Clive Rouse, Medieval Wall Paintings (ISBN 0747801444). Still in print.
For a readable introduction to the relationship between art and drama, and the development of religous imagery, see Margaret, Anderson, History and Image[ry] in British Churches, (ISBN 0719554144), also in print.
Since the above was written, we have come across a specialist study: Gary D Schmidt, The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell: eighth-century Britain to the fifteenth century, Susquehanna University Press, 1995, ISBN 0945636695. We have not yet had the chance to compare his study with what is said above.
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