It’s been twenty years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first hit the airwaves. As a child, I thought the fact that Sunnydale High School was located atop a ‘hellmouth’ – a portal to the demonic realms – was merely a cool dramatic conceit, another example of Joss Whedon’s genius. As I got older, went to university, and developed my interest in medieval history, I was intrigued to discover that the concept of a ‘Mouth of Hell’ was a central feature of Christian iconography. For centuries it was a popular motif in sculpture, manuscript illumination, and drama. What, then, are the origins of the hellmouth, and why does its symbolism resonate so strongly even today.
Fig. 1. A stereotypical Hellmouth, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan M.945 (c.1440), fol. 107r (source: wikicommons)
It’s assumed that the idea of an all-consuming Hellmouth derived, in part, from ancient Mesopotamian creation myths, which, through many transformations, found their way into Judo-Christian thought as the mighty sea-beast Leviathan. Job 41 was the Biblical precedent through which the concrete association between Leviathan and Hell was made. Verses 19-21 are particularly evocative:
Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth
Biblical exegesis often involved the creation of typologies. That is, it was believed that events in the Old Testament prefigured and anticipated those found in the New. Thus, the swallowing of Jonah by the whale – only to be disgorged after three days – was said to correspond with apocryphal tale of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and the liberation of the Patriarchs from the shackles of the Devil (fig. 2). It was the reference to the ‘hooking of Leviathan’ in Job 41: 1-2 that made the connections between Leviathan/Hellmouth, the whale that swallowed Jonah, and the Harrowing of Hell explicit. In sum, to be swallowed was to be damned. The motif of the infernal, consuming mouth was the perfect image through which to weave all these disparate theological motifs together.
Fig. 2. Harrowing of Hell, alabaster relief (c.15th century) Honolulu Museum of Art (source: wiki commons)
Fig. 3. Hellmouth, Last Judgement, Winchester Psalter (c.1150s), fol. 39r (source: wikicommons)
The Hellmouth was often employed as a general symbol of damnation. The famous full-page illumination contained in the Winchester Psalter (1150) is a case in point (fig. 3). Here, an archangel locks the gates of Hell in the aftermath of the Last Judgement. The multitude of eyes, snouts, mouths and maws is suggestive of chaos, sinfulness and monstrosity – a complete inverse of Divine order.
Fig. 4. Hellmouth (detail), Beatus Apocalypse (c.12 century), Rylands Latin MS 8, fol. 197r (source: John Rylands Library)
A significant number of Hellmouths contain leonine features. Figure four, taken from the Rylands MS 8 Beatus Apocalypse (c.1200) depicts a giant, yawning mouth with a clearly noticeable mane. Illuminators taken with the lion-motif were most likely working form scriptural precedents. Psalms 22: 21 (“Rescue me from the mouth of the lion”) and Psalm 10: 19 (“He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net”) appear to be the most likely sources.
As well as acting as a symbol for the gateway to Hell, the motif of unnatural consumption was further highlighted through the depiction of Satan himself feasting on the damned. One of the most famous examples can be discerned in the thirteenth-century Last Judgement mosaic found in the Florentine Baptistery (fig. 5). Showing a vivid and appropriately chaotic vision of Hell, the image of Satan can be read as a pointed inversion of Christ Panocrator (Christ Enthroned), while the three heads are likely to represent an infernal parody of the Holy Trinity. The attention of the viewer is directed to the sinner being consumed in Satan’s maw. Likewise, Giotto’s Last Judgement scene in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (c.1305), depicts a hairy, corpulent Satan simultaneously gorging on and defecating the damned.
Fig. 5. Last Judgement, Florentine Baptistery (c.13th century) (source: Wikicommons)
Fig. 6. Last Judgement (detail), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (c.1305) (source: Wikicommons)
As the centuries progressed, the ubiquity of the Hellmouth image led to its use in more popular and commercial contexts. By the early modern period elaborate hellmouths were being used as props in Mystery Plays. As noted by Gary D. Schmidt, surviving documentation from the Drapers Guild, Coventry (1562), reveals a payment for ‘kepyng of fyer at hell mouthe’, suggesting that pyrotechnics were being employed to simulate an appropriately hellish environment. Bellows and braziers were likely used to create the illusion of a fiery, smoky, and actively monstrous doorway to damnation – the very image of Leviathan as described in Job 41:19-21.
This talk of special effects and stagecraft brings us, appropriately enough, back to Buffy. The series ends with the reformed vampire Spike destroying Sunnydale’s hellmouth with the the help of a magical amulet. It is a spectacular ending, one that would have surely impressed the directors of the Last Judgement mystery plays.
Hughes, Robert, Heaven and Hell in Western Art (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968)
Schmidt, Gary D., The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell (London: SUP, 1995)
Sheingorn, Pamela, ‘Who Can Open the Doors of His Face?’ The Iconography of Hell Mouth’, in The Iconography of Hell, ed. by Clifford Davidson and Thomas H. Seiler (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), 1-19