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Focusing on select examples of monumental art and manuscript illumination, this chapter examines key iconographic themes, visual strategies, and changes in artistic representations of heaven and hell in the Romanesque and gothic periods. In particular, it investigates how medieval artists and their patrons drew variously on scripture, theology, and exegesis to craft images of the afterlife that functioned complexly within the specific historical, cultural, and social contexts in which they were created. Emphasis also lies on the ways that these visual representations of heaven and hell, though often rooted in textual sources, constituted a distinct form of speculation on the afterlife. Seen both individually and together, the works discussed here reveal the central and enduring contribution of art in shaping medieval conceptions of the hereafter.
This chapter presents a survey of both Latin and Old English visions of heaven and hell in Anglo-Saxon England from Boniface to Aelfric. The Anglo-Saxons were not content with reading about visions of foreigners, such as the Vita Fursei, the Visio Pauli, or pope Gregory’s Dialogi, but were eager to find native Anglo-Saxons who experienced visions themselves. With the account of the monk of Wenlock, Boniface presents the first native Anglo-Saxon’s vision, but the desire to Anglicise visions becomes most apparent in Bede who first – and incorrectly – transposes the vision of the Irishman Fursey to England, and then narrates the vision of the native Anglo-Saxon Dryhthelm. Aelfric silently corrects this ‘pious fraud’, but by his time Anglo-Saxons such as the monk of Wenlock, Dryhthelm, Guthlac, and Merchdeof had already experienced visions, and England had therefore joined the other nations in meriting this special grace.
From the sixth century onwards, numerous visions of the afterlife and the otherworld were recorded by authors who operated in the post-Roman barbarian West. The most prevailing characteristics of all these accounts are their brevity and conciseness. More often than not, these stories were integrated into a larger historical or hagiographic narrative, in an attempt to stress various political, religious, or cultural points. It was only towards the end of the Merovingian period, with the composition of the so-called Visio Baronti, that more comprehensive accounts of the afterlife began to appear in the West, and thus paved the way for the emergence of a new literary genre. This chapter discusses the evolution of these narratives, as well as the various possible reasons why travels to the otherworld became a seminal component in the historiographical and hagiographical tradition of the early medieval West.
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