Friday, 27 March 2015

Mini History Blogs: Hell's Mouth

Yesterday, in Channel 4's coverage of the re interment of King Richard III, Dr Helen Castor was explaining how people of the middle ages were preoccupied with death, how they dealt with it and the preparations they made for it. One of places that the medieval man would worry about was heavens waiting room, that is Purgatory.

Of course, the richer you were, the easier your passage was to heaven. Henry VII paid for ten thousand masses to be said on his death, the Archbishop of Canterbury paid for fifteen thousand, the poor could light a candle or try very hard to behave themselves.
The image below is a good example of what they thought happened to the medieval soul if it didn't get a ticket.
This image, depicts an angel locking the door to what is known as a Hell Mouth. Often illustrated as a monster, in this case a giant sea creature, whose mouth never closes, we can see the agonies and the suffering of the poor tormented souls inside. It is a gateway to hell, the fiery depths of medieval damnation. It is a good example of how medieval people saw heaven and hell as separate places. If you look, the door with its lock lies exactly on the border which could be said to represent the area just outside hell, which of course is Purgatory. The angel stands in the margin representing heaven, locking the door to those who are damned for all time, that is hell, which takes up the centre space.
There are many manuscripts from the medieval period that show the hell mouth, this particular one comes from the Winchester Psalter, an English twelfth century illuminated manuscript which is also known as the Psalter of Henry of Blois, who was the brother of King Stephen.

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