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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Encountering the embodied mouth of hell : the play of oppositions in religious vernacular theater Rossmeisl, Robyn


The cavernous mouth of hell was an iconographic convention representing the threshold of eternal damnation in medieval England and Europe. The gaping mouth of a fierce beast captured the essence of everlasting isolation from God, making it a dramatic way to represent hell’s perpetual threat for devout Christians. Created in tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England, the mouth of hell spread throughout continental Europe, and detailed Lucifer’s Fall, the Harrowing of Hell, or the Last Judgment. This horrible visage was represented in sculpted tympana, paintings, mosaics, and stained glass, and by the fourteenth century, the mouth of hell appeared in lay religious vernacular theater as a constructed stage scene and prop. Theatrical effects contributed characteristics to the visual experience of the mouth of hell that could not be portrayed in static representations. Actors playing demons issued from the great mouth, condemned characters were dragged to its jaws, smoke wafted from its recesses. In his 1995 survey of the image, Gary D. Schmidt utilizes Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of grotesque realism to propose that the mouth of hell became a ludic site of laughter in medieval theater, eroding its theological meaning and accelerating its decline. By examining the mouth of hell’s performativity within a ritualized production undertaken by communities, this thesis intervenes in debates about the fearsome, comic, efficacious, and entertaining qualities of religious vernacular theater. Extant primary sources reveal that theater did not void the iconography of its threatening countenance, but facilitated an intimacy between the laity and the mouth of hell that had not been possible before. Through its purposeful nature, communal obligations and audience involvement, religious vernacular theater provided a context in which the mouth of hell could become a multivocal and complex image within medieval culture.

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