Discovering the Sanctuary knocker: Symbolism of the Hellmouth – Part 1

In this blog post, Open Treasure Gallery Attendant, James Taylor, investigates the origins of Durham Cathedral’s famous sanctuary knocker and the associated imagery of the Hellmouth

As detailed in a previous blog post, the monks at Durham commissioned a sanctuary knocker to be placed on the North Door of the cathedral during the 12th century. It was crafted from bronze and took the form of a lion haloed by its mane, devouring a man whose legs are being eaten by snakes. This striking design is based on the ‘Hellmouth’, a medieval image depicting a literal entrance to hell through the gaping jaws of a beast. This blog post will examine why such an evocative image was considered suitable to welcome those wishing to claim sanctuary.

The Hellmouth as an image and concept appeared throughout Europe from the Early Medieval period through to the Renaissance. Two of the most interesting places that the imagery was commonly used was in mystery plays and illuminated manuscripts.

Early images of the Hellmouth in illuminated manuscripts. This image is from the Works of Augustine, Oxford, 14th century (MS B.II.20, folio 165r). View online here:
Prof Richard Gameson describes the image as: ‘The left-hand section shows two figures raising in a cloth a naked soul which kneels in prayer; the hand of God emerges from a cloud above it. The right-hand section shows a figure in a beast hell mouth.’

A number of mystery plays survive today and are known as the ‘Cycle Dramas’. Originally these started out as verbal embellishments of liturgical texts, which became more elaborate overtime. These early plays were probably written and produced by monks. However in 1210, suspicious of the growing popularity of the plays, Pope Innocent III banned clergy from acting on a public stage. Instead town guilds took over, removing the Latin, adding in non-biblical passages and introducing comic scenes. Presumably much to the Pope’s horror!

Some of the plays that survive today include but are not limited to the Fall of Lucifer, the Creation and Fall of Man, Cain and Abel and the Passion and Resurrection. In these stories, the Hellmouth was used as a metaphor for evil, though it is known that a number of productions had large mechanical props that were used to scare the audience with a particularly tangible reminder of what awaited them after death!

In the cycle dramas, characters such as Judas, Cain, Herod and Lucifer showed their denial of God through uncontrolled thoughts and actions, through which they “reveal their deliberate choice to become food for the insatiable mouth of hell” (Dignan 1994.1). 

This imagery would have particularly resonated with a medieval audience as the concept of the Hellmouth featured heavily in their understanding of the world. In the early Christian Church, the mouth embodied ordered intellect through prayer, fasting and clean, calm, and charitable conversation. As the portal to the body for the Eucharist the mouth was to be respected. Both in monastic and secular society what you ate and how you ate became increasingly regulated through moral codes, helping to maintain the social order. These ideals were integral to the behavior of the monks within the monastery. It probably didn’t hurt to have these concepts reinforced on entry to the church precincts.

Early imagery of the Hellmouth in a woodcut from 60, ‘Cordiale quattuor novissimorum’, Westminster, 1495/6- part of Durham Cathedral Library collections.
The woodcut shows a scene of hell along the bottom, with the Hellmouth appearing on the far right

However, it is important to remember that the mouth is not just a portal for the body to enter, but also a portal for things to exit the body! A running theme through many cultures is the belief that regurgitation brings about a changed state of being. In the Old Testament a whale swallows the Hebrew Prophet Jonah. He was tasked to perform a mission for God, which he decided to abandon. Due to his refusal, he is kept within the stomach of the whale for three days. It is only when he accepts God’s will that his body is regurgitated.

The sanctuary knocker on the North Door of the cathedral features a man being swallowed by the Hellmouth, presumably he too has fallen from God’s path. Anyone wishing to claim sanctuary would hold the ring, symbolically pulling the man from the clutches of hell, mirroring the events the claimant was experiencing. By committing a crime the claimant had sinned, and had subsequently been sent on their own journey to face the mouth of hell! For the church, the rite of sanctuary was an act of forgiveness. You entered the cathedral as a sinner and when you left, either to face the courts or to go into exile, you re-emerged forgiven, a changed being.

The Sanctuary knocker on Durham Cathedral’s north door

Keep your eyes peeled for part 2 of the blog series in the days to come, It delves into where the Hellmouth imagery popped up in illuminated manuscripts.

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