The Ecclesiological Society

Dooms and the mouth of hell in the late medieval period

Click on any of the pictures below for an enlarged image. Use your 'back' key to return.

                            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.)
Devil blowing trumpet
Click for a larger picture
The gentleman on the left is a devil from the famous 'doom' painting at Wenhaston church, Suffolk, painted in the early 1500s. 

His name is probably Tutiuillus. How do we know? read on.

A 'doom' shows the Last Judgement. Pevsner called this one 'distressingly rustic'. 

Doom at Wenhaston
Wenhaston doom, now on display in the nave. Notice the blank spaces where the great crucifix ('rood') stood, with Mary and John either side.

Hell's mouth at Wenhaston
Souls being led into the hell's mouth at Wenhaston.

For more Wenhaston pics, click below
On-line from the Suffolk now website, with thanks:
Michael weighing souls
Peter receiving souls
Other pics:
Christ in majesty
Mary receiving souls into heaven

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: 

  • Christ sits top centre in judgement, seated on a rainbow, pierced hands upraised and side bared to show his wounds.
  • On Christ's right hand (the viewer's left) souls are rising, and/or going to paradise.
  • On Christ's left, souls are being led to hell (see picture). 
Hell is almost always in the form of a hell's mouth (discussed in a moment). 

Often, as here at Wenhaston, the Archangel Michael weighs the souls with the devil pulling down the scale of sin. 

Compared to earlier dooms, the later ones (illustrated in this pictorial essay) tend to show Christ as  the wounded Saviour, rather than the transcendent king. Heaven and hell are shown in detail. Mary and sometimes John the Baptist put in appearances as intercessors. 

St Thomas, Christ in majesty
Christ in judgement, and the heavenly city.

St Thomas, north side of doomSt Thomas, south side of doom
 Left, souls rising to go to judgement  Right, souls being taken to hell's mouth

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 influence? 


Oddington doom
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).

Devil at Wenhaston
Wenhaston again!
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.

Stage showing hell mouth
The Valenciennes Passion play (Bibl. Nat. MS. fr. 12536). (From Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1904, vol I., p. 393).

Click 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'. 

Mouth of hell, St Apollonia
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.

Doom at Stratford
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. 


Harrowing of hell
English alabaster at Carcassone museum, (reproduced in W. L. Hildburgh, English alabaster carvings as records of the medieval religious drama, Archaeologia, 93, 1949)..

Ivory diptych
(From E. Prior & A Gardner, Medieval Figure Sculpture in England, 1912).

Dutch manuscript
A Dutch manuscript of the fifteenth century.

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 his horn. 

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, Finland
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.

Danish wall painting
Linked to site. If this is slow-loading, click here for a copy.
And this is a Danish wall-painting at Gudum, of about1550. 

More of these can be found on the excellent site, at
but they are rather slow-loading.

Cromwell on hells-mouth
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 imagery. 

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.

Click here for other pictorial essays.

February 2000
If you have further information about this subject, please send us an e-mail.

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