Discovering the Sanctuary knocker: Symbolism of the Hellmouth – Part 2

In part 2 of this blog series Open Treasure Gallery Attendant, James Taylor, looks at where the Hellmouth imagery appeared in early manuscripts

*If you haven’t read part 1, you can do so here before you read on*

At the end of part one we saw how sanctuary seekers historically emerged from the north door of the church in a new state of forgiveness. The link between forgiveness, salvation and the Hellmouth is also seen in a number of beautifully illustrated scenes from illuminated manuscripts. 

The sanctuary knocker on Durham Cathedral’s north door. Image: David Wood

The Tiberius Psalter (British Library)

An early example of the Hellmouth can be found in the Tiberius Psalter. This is one of a number of important documents produced in Winchester during the mid-11th century. The manuscript contains 24 colour drawings depicting episodes from the lives of Christ and King David. These scenes include Christ’s temptation in the desert, crucifixion, and the ‘Harrowing of Hell’.  The vibrant images were designed to enhance the devotional experience of reading and meditating on the Psalms, as well as providing a visual commentary on the Biblical texts. 

The image that concerns us is the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, which describes the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell between the time of his crucifixion and his resurrection. Through his actions he brings salvation to all the ‘righteous’ who had died since the beginning of the world. In the corresponding image, Christ is seen reaching for the hands of those in hell in order to lift them through the Hellmouth to salvation whilst stood on the body of Satan who is bound at hand and foot. To see the image go to  and select image 13 from pages listed at the bottom of the screen.

The pairing of the Hellmouth with a story that deals with concepts of salvation is important. Through Christ’s actions in Hell, worshippers were granted salvation. The monks, pilgrims and congregation who passed through the north door and saw the Hellmouth would be reminded of the sacrifice Christ made for them and their salvation through his actions with the need to follow his example. 

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves (The Morgan Library and Museum)

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves is a single volume prayer book created c. 1440 in the Netherlands. It is considered one of the finest Dutch illuminated manuscripts in the world containing 157 miniatures. The book’s 15th century date makes it considerably later than the construction of Durham’s sanctuary knocker, however, the concepts it deals with would have been familiar to a 12th century audience.

The book is divided into different sections. This includes the Hours and Masses for the Seven Days of the Week. Medieval Christian tradition associated particular figures or themes with different days. Sunday as the day of the resurrection was the Lord’s Day; Monday was the day of the dead as their torments were suspended on Sunday but recommenced the following day. 

The miniatures opening the Monday Hours of the Dead contain a fascinating degree of detail. The opening image is a deathbed scene filled with interesting characters. As a man lies dying in his bed his wife can be seen offering him a candle, whilst in the background a doctor is examining a sample of the man’s urine. His son, who can be seen plotting near the door on the right hand side and can later be found under the main image raiding his father’s coffers! You can view the imagery from this manuscript here.

This is contrasted with the image to its right, which shows purgatory, with souls bathed in fire and surrounded by the fanged jaws of Hell. To a modern audience this combination of images would appear more terrifying than desirable. However, for a medieval audience this would have been a hopeful image. The dying man hopes to reach purgatory, here his soul will be cleansed of sin in ‘expiating, if painful, fire’. 

The church’s understanding of purgatory had fully developed by the end of the 12th century, coinciding with the creation of the sanctuary knocker at Durham Priory. For the population of 12th century Durham, purgatory was a real place, just as heaven and hell were. Purgatory was seen as a hopeful abode, people couldn’t yet see the face of God but through penitence and the purgation of their sins they lived in hope that they would see salvation. 

It’s possible the monks used the image of the Hellmouth to draw a direct connection between sanctuary and purgatory. Just as the man on his death bed in the ‘Hours of Catherine of Cleves’ passed through the jaws of Hell into purgatory to have his sins cleansed, so the sanctuary seeker passes the Hellmouth into the church precincts to reach safety. The church becomes a physical representation of purgatory for the claimant where they go through a process of forgiveness for their crimes. 

Over 37 days they had a choice, they could either compound their crimes – an act of atonement, or of making amends – or they could go into exile. In the illuminated miniature above we see the souls of the saved led out of the Hellmouth on their journey to heaven having atoned for their sins. This would have mirrored the experience of the claimant presenting at Durham Cathedral, who, after their 37 allotted days, would have exited through the north door, past the jaws of the Hellmouth, with their crimes forgiven. Although it cannot be conclusively proven, it seems plausible that the monks were actively promoting this association.

Be sure to come and see the sanctuary knocker for yourself, once the cathedral and Open Treasure reopen to the public and journey as an outlaw would have, into the safety of our cathedral church. But for now, stay home, stay safe, and enjoy these digital highlights.

One thought on “Discovering the Sanctuary knocker: Symbolism of the Hellmouth – Part 2”

  1. What you think about image of Helmouth in Winchester Bible? Im very interesting in that apocalyptical view and now I wanna research about that. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s