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In medieval art, hell was frequently portrayed as the flaming gullet of a terrible monster. This image of the literal mouth of hell never exactly appears as such in the bible and it has been speculated that the iconography derives from pre-Christian pagan mythology. Perhaps the poisonous all-devouring maw of the Fenris wolf was transformed into the flames of damnation due to the words of early Christian proselytizers (who sometimes incorporated pre-existing ideas into their teachings). Since the imagery originated in England first before becoming standard throughout Western Europe, it has been posited that the hellmouth concept originated in the Danelaw—the Norse settlements of England.
Whatever its origin, the picture of tiny naked sinners imprisoned and tormented inside of a huge merciless hellmouth is one of the most vivid images from gothic art. The images which I have embedded in this blog post all came from a single book of hours which was created in Utrecht, around 1440. The prayer book was once a treasured possession of Catherine of Cleves, who was the wife of Henry, Duke of Guise. The Duke, a powerful and important nobleman was assassinated on the orders of Henry III during the War of the Three Henrys. Catherine never forgave the French monarch and it is believed her support was instrumental to the king’s own death at the hands of a crazed assassin-monk. It is interesting to imagine her eyes running over the burning sinners as she plotted the death of kings and fed fuel into the fires of the religious wars of France.
The book was divided up in the nineteenth century, but, through good fortune (and thanks to large sums of money trading hands) it is now completely in the possession of the Morgan Library and Museum. Going to the fine online site allows one to examine the book in great detail and gain many insights into day-to-day life in the fifteenth century (and get a taste of the larger zeitgeist).