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Grigore (2013 Congress)

Mihai-D. Grigore
(Institut für Europäische Geschichte Mainz)
“Still Waters – Running Waters: The Topography of Evil in Medieval Art and Imagery”

Abstract of Paper intended to be presented at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2013)

Session on Water as Symbol, Sign, and Trial: Aquatic Semantics in the Middle Ages
Co-sponsored by the Societas Magica and the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organizer: Mihai-D. Grigore
2013 Congress

[Note: This session was cancelled, so the paper was not presented. The Abstract reports the intentions for delivery.]

In medieval images, notably in the work of Hieronymus Bosch, representations of demonic places, such as hell, purgatory, and the like, employ the symbol of Still Waters as an unhealthy, miasmatic, and pestilential dimension of dangerous and ever-threatening Evil. For example, the location of the Midgard Snake, the main protagonist of the Nordic version of Eschaton, lies in the sea, while Hell is imagined as a marsh or a lake of fire. Still Waters such as lakes, seas, or ponds are places where monstrous beings hide and from which these creatures emerge to endanger human existence.

In contrast, positive topographies, beginning with Paradise, are described and imagined by the symbol of purifying, healthy, Running Waters, which conserve human life and well-being. In cultural and religious memory, Running Waters, including rivers, wells, and streams, are mostly associated with positive experiences, such as the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan and the Four Rivers of Paradise.

The paper will offer a case study of medieval painters — Hieronymus Bosch and others — displaying manifestations of these two paradigms. I will show how the medieval imaginary absorbs mentalities of pre-Christian mythologies and religious systems and adapts them to the new cultural and religious circumstances of Medieval Europe.