Fragments of Doom in Post-Reformation England

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Richard Dhillon, an AHRC M3C-funded PhD student based in the University of Birmingham’s Department of History.  Richard is working with Tara Hamling and Jonathan Willis on representations of the hell actoss the English reformation.  Here he reflects upon some of the changing ways in which the traditional ‘doom’ (or last judgement scene) continued to be represented visually after the reformation.

Guild Chapel

Fig. 1 A reconstruction of the Doom at Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel by William Puddephat.

In his accounts for 1563, John Shakespeare, father of William Shakespeare and chamberlain of Stratford-upon-Avon, recorded a charge of 2s for ‘defasyng ymages in ye chapel’.[1] In a purification exercise that has become emblematic of Protestant iconoclasm, Shakespeare whitewashed the walls of the town’s Guild Chapel, covering much of the rich scheme that adorned them, including the Doom which dominated the chancel arch.[2] [Fig. 1] The scene depicted the Day of Judgment, as described in the Book of Matthew. Christ sits in majesty at the centre of the scene. To the viewer’s left are the saved, entering the kingdom of heaven, and to the right are the damned, being delivered into the gruesome mouth of hell.

In March of the same year, John Foxe published his monumental volume of Protestant propaganda,[3] the title page of which depicts a scene that is decidedly similar to the one at the Guild Chapel. [Fig. 2] Christ dominates the top of the page, surrounded by angels. To the left are the saved, crowned in heaven, and to the right, the damned, huddled amongst various fiends in hell. Depicted below the damned is what is perhaps the ultimate representation of Roman Catholic ritual materiality: the Eucharist. This is juxtaposed with scenes of the Protestant martyrs whose experience Foxe immortalises, and a depiction of a Protestant sermon. Following a recognisable composition, established in the Doom imagery, the scene is reworked to reflect the polemical and political message of the tome. The binary alignment of salvation against damnation in the traditional composition of Judgment scenes is presented here in confessional terms: the saved are Protestant, and the damned are Catholic.

Actes and Monuments

Fig. 2 Title page of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (London, 1563)

Foxe’s title page is an unsurprising preamble to his book and seems particularly appropriate given the content and purpose of the publication. John Shakespeare’s defacement of the wall paintings at the Guild Chapel is similarly unsurprising, as such acts would have been a common occurrence in places of worship. However, given the concurrency of these events, one has to pose what is perhaps an obvious question: what made this imagery objectionable in one context, but acceptable in another? This simultaneous destruction and creation not only challenges still commonly-held assumptions that post-Reformation culture was one devoid of visual imagery, but also presents a compelling case which chimes with the emerging consensus that the process of reform actually involved the reworking, renegotiation and migration of traditional imagery and cultural forms.

John Day’s 1569 publication, Christian Prayers and Meditations in English French, Italian, Spanish, Greeke, and Latine, depicts a hell that is remarkably similar to that in the Doom imagery.[5] [Fig. 3] In the scene, the damned are packed into the gaping mouth of a hideous beast by various devils. Furthermore, the margin on the right side of the page depicts a small-scale Judgment arrangement, with Christ enthroned at the top of the image. In traditional Doom imagery, this and the image of hell are presented as a continuous narrative, within the same scene. Despite the presence of these two elements of traditional Judgment scenes on the same page, here they are disconnected by a border. The arrangement isolates the mouth of hell imagery from the wider Judgment iconography.  This image, therefore, is a representation of reformed hell, demonstrating the kind of modification and adaption of traditional imagery described by Collinson in his definition of iconoclasm. However, the same images are published in subsequent editions of Day’s book until at least 1608, which complicates Collinson’s dating.

John Day

Fig. 3 John Day, Christian Prayers and Meditations in English French, Italian, Spanish, Greeke, and Latine (London, 1569).

In a printed broadside dating to the first decade of the seventeenth century, William Rogers presents ‘A Godly Meditation Day and Night to be Exercised’. [Fig. 4][6] The broadside prompts the viewer to reflect on their own piety, their scriptural knowledge, and, based on this examination, to contemplate their own posthumous destination.

William Rogers

Fig. 4 William Rogers, A Godly Meditation Day and Night to Be Exercised (London, 1600).

The border, ornamented with various images, depicts the familiar iconographical facets of the traditional scenes of Judgment. At the top of the page is a beaming sun, representing the divine. Situated in the centre of the left border is an image of a godly man, kneeling in prayer; and opposite, in the centre of the right border is an image of a sinner, surrounded by various ‘emblems of sin’.[7] At the foot of the page, a gaping mouth of hell frames a scene of a naked figure swimming through the flames of hell. The mouth of hell, represented as the gaping mouth of a beast, was a familiar tradition in medieval English culture, and a staple component of Doom imagery. My research to date has traced the survival and persistent use of this motif throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in English printed books and cheaper wares, like that in Rogers’s broadside. A similar arrangement is present in a depiction in Samuel Rowlands’s Hels torments and heavens glorie (1601) in which hell is framed within the jaws of the hell mouth. [Fig. 5][8]

Mouth of Hell

Fig. 5 Mouth of hell from Samuel Rowlands’s Hels torments and heavens glorie (London, 1601).

John Bunyan

Fig. 6 John Bunyan, A Mapp Shewing the Order & Causes of Salvation & Damnation (London, 1691).

In a later example from the middle of the seventeenth century, John Bunyan represents what may be considered a diagrammatic representation of Judgment, recalling the familiar composition. [Fig. 6][9] The Trinity represents the divine; reprobation is situated to the right of the page, and election is on the left. The broadside contains two explicit pictorial elements, at the bottom of the page, representing heaven and hell: to the left, a cherub is pictured among clouds, and to the right, the head of a beast, with its mouth ajar.

Reformation ushered in new methods of expression and reception, but relied in fundamental ways on existing forms and ideas. People had to learn to view familiar things in new ways and through new media. The head of the beast, in these images, acts as a visual shorthand, encapsulating the elements of traditional imagery of damnation into one simple motif. Motifs like the mouth of hell could be isolated from their wider scheme and scaled down, and Judgment, therefore, could be represented by a single aspect of the much larger Doom arrangement. The examples above focus on the continuation of traditional motifs in post-Reformation printed items. Similar patterns of survival and modification have been identified in other contexts, beyond the printed page. Such examples may be seen to challenge Collinson’s notion of ‘iconophobia’ directly, but while it is true that a period of increased anxiety surrounding the representation of certain religious imagery can be traced from the later decades of the sixteenth century, it is now clear that this was both content and context specific. These examples serve to demonstrate the way in which traditional imagery of hell survived the process of religious reform, and were reworked in post-Reformation England in new contexts and media, within the boundaries of reformed sensibilities and acceptability. Hell, then, provides an important case study through which we may enhance our understanding of the shape of this reformed way of seeing, and more broadly, the process of religious reform.

[1] Edgar I. Fripp, ed., Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon and Other Records, 1553-1620, trans. by Richard Savage (London: Oxford University Press for the Dugdale Society, 1921), 1: 1553–l566, p. 128.

[2] Clifford Davisdson, The Guild Chapel Wall Paintings at Stratford-upon-Avon (New York: AMS Press), pp. 10-11.

[3] John Foxe, Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perillous Dayes Touching Matters of the Church, Wherein Ar Comprehended and Decribed the Great Persecutions [and] Horrible Troubles, That Haue Bene Wrought and Practised by the Romishe Prelates, Speciallye in This Realme of England and Scotlande, from the Yeare of Our Lorde a Thousande, Vnto the Tyme Nowe Present. Gathered and Collected according to the True Copies [and] Wrytinges Certificatorie, as Wel of the Parties Them Selues That Suffered, as Also out of the Bishops Registers, Which Wer the Doers Therof, by Iohn Foxe (London, 1563).

[4] The title-page appears on various editions up until at least 1641.

[5] John Day, Christian Prayers and Meditations in English French, Italian, Spanish, Greeke, and Latine (London, 1569).

[6] William Rogers, A Godly Meditation Day and Night to Be Exercised (London, 1600).

[7] Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 240.

[8] Samuel Rowlands, Hels torments and heavens glorie (London, 1601), sig. 10.

[9] John Bunyan, A Mapp Shewing the Order & Causes of Salvation & Damnation (London, 1691).

1 thought on “Fragments of Doom in Post-Reformation England

  1. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

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