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Decensus Christi, medieval iconography, medieval drama, hellmouth


Present throughout medieval iconography and drama, the hellmouth relays a frightening glimpse of what awaits sinners after death. However, our perception of the hellmouth becomes complicated when we study these images in conjunction with Hell’s portrayal as a speaking character. Ascribing anthropomorphic qualities to Hell makes its theological implications more approachable for a non-clerical audience, effectively forming connections between human sinners and a figure of unimaginable monstrosity. This essay examines the medieval Latin Gospel of Nicodemus and its first Middle English descendant, the verse Digby Harrowing of Hell, in terms of how these texts describe the physiology of Hell and Satan, as well as how they imagine the descent of Christ into Hell and evil’s reaction to Him. Parallel to this close reading is a discussion of the significance of the sacramental Eucharist as a physical means through which Christ’s divinity may be apprehended. By juxtaposing these concepts, this essay positions Satan as an exemplum of a bad consumer incapable of fully knowing Christ and Hell as the more knowledgeable figure by means of meditatio and ruminatio.