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28 October 2021

Into the inferno

700 years after the death of the Florentine poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri (b. c. 1265, d. 1321), the exhibition Inferno has opened at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, Italy. Inspired by the infernal visions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, it explores the iconography of Hell, tracing its development and representation from the Middle Ages and the later Renaissance, all the way up to the modern era. In the process, it brings together some 235 works of art from over 80 museums and public and private collections across Europe. The British Library is delighted to be lending one of its most precious manuscripts, the Winchester Psalter (Cotton MS Nero C IV), to the exhibition, which will be on display at the museum from 15 October 2021 to 9 January 2022.

A poster for the exhibition Inferno.
The exhibition poster for Inferno, curated by Jean Clair, at the Scuderie del Quirinale.

The Winchester Psalter appears in the first section of the exhibition, which explains the history of infernal iconography and highlights Dante’s interpretation of a centuries-old religious tradition in his writing. Made in the mid-12th-century, the manuscript is a bilingual copy of the Book of Psalms, written in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the principal language of the aristocracy in England after the Norman Conquest. The book was probably commissioned by the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois (b. c. 1096, d. 1171), younger brother to the English King Stephen (r. 1135-1154), and then housed at Winchester’s Old Minster.

The Psalter is notable for its extensive illustrative programme, with 39 pages of narrative illustrations of subjects from the Old and New Testaments prefacing the Psalms. They include scenes from the Books of Genesis and Exodus, the Life of the Virgin Mary, and the Life of Christ. The final image in this narrative sequence is a striking representation of the Last Judgement.

A representation of the Last Judgement from the Winchester Psalter, showing an enormous hell-mouth swallowing demons and the souls of the damned, and an archangel locking the gates of Hell.
The Last Judgement, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r)

The Last Judgement scene is principally designed around an iconography known as the ‘Mouth of Hell’, the representation of the entrance to Hell as the mouth of a beast that swallows demons and the souls of the damned alike. The iconography developed towards the end of the 11th century in England and soon became a popular motif in art and literature across medieval Europe. It frequently appeared on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, where it featured in depictions of the Fall of the Angels, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Last Judgement.

The Winchester Psalter’s depiction of the hell-mouth is one of the most elaborate to survive from this period. It shows two gigantic creatures, with hairy bodies and bloodshot eyes, whose mouths meet to form a single gaping maw at the centre of the page. Within the dark abyss of the maw, we see horned devils and demons carrying whips, flails, and pitchforks, corralling a shifting mass of naked sinners. The crowd includes figures from all parts of medieval society, from kings and queens in golden crowns, to monks with tonsured heads, to lay people.

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing a crowd of sinners swallowed by the Mouth of Hell during the Last Judgement.
A crowd of sinners in the Mouth of Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail)

Overlooking the hell-mouth in the centre, a pair of dragonheads emerge from the folds in each creature’s neck, their long fangs forming the hinges of the red gates of Hell, which an archangel then locks with a large key. Meanwhile, a caption at the top of the page, written in Anglo-Norman French, states, ‘Ici est enfers et li angels ki enferme les porteis’ (Here is Hell and the angel who closes the doors).

A detail from the Winchester Psalter, showing an archangel locking the door to Hell, during the Last Judgement.
An archangel locks the doors to Hell, from The Winchester Psalter, Mid-12th century (Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r detail).

You can visit Inferno and see the Winchester Psalter and its Last Judgement scene in person at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome from 15th October 2021 to 9 January 2022. The exhibition catalogue Inferno is edited by Jean Clair and published by Electa.

Calum Cockburn
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