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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Melbourne, Derbyshire (†Derby) C.14 (late?)

Women and Devils

“Ye cannot drink of the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils,
ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils”
[non potest calicem Domini bibere et calicem daemonorium (1 Corinthians 10:21)
Women & Devils, Melbourne

This extremely curious painting is on the south side of the central tower arch wall, and thus facing the congregation directly. In the lower half, two women, poised tensely as if quarrelling, seem to be disputing possession of a circular object. Professor EW Tristram believed that this was a stolen Host (the consecrated wafer used in the Mass) and that the painting represented witchcraft and the Black Mass. Stories about stolen Hosts and their use in witchcraft rituals abounded. Above the women, with his feet on their backs, is a huge horned devil wearing an odd garment resembling a pair of loose short breeches or even a skirt, from which his hairy legs protrude.

Also visible is a vaguely tubular object dividing the garment from waist to crotch level. What this is meant to be I have no idea, and the obvious-seeming sexual/scatological implications may not be correct ones. Beneath him kneel the two women. Each has another devil on her back – the one at the right (who has female breasts) is clawing at the woman and possibly gnawing her as well; the upside-down devil at the left may be blowing a trumpet or pulling at the woman’s draperies. There is possibly a very small black devil in the centre between the knees of the two women, and the principal devil above bears a scroll bearing the legend IC EST CELIA DEABOL.

However this is to be translated I really do not think this is a Black Mass, or anything to do with witchcraft. The object the women hold is far larger than any medieval host I have ever seen in a contemporary illustration – even those enclosed in a monstrance to be held up for adoration during a procession are far smaller. According to the Malleus Maleficarum¹ witches who stole Hosts did so by concealing them under the tongue or surreptitiously slipping them from mouth to handerkerchief, neither of which would be possible with something of this size. There are paintings and woodcuts of Black Masses in existence (those I have seen date from the 15th century)² but these invariably feature the osculum infame (‘unholy kiss’) and feature the Devil in the shape of a goat standing patiently (but sometimes with a knowing smile) while groups of women and men queue to kiss his rump. They do not remotely resemble this painting. Moreover, if these women are knowingly and willingly servants of Satan, then he shows himself an ungrateful master here. The devils here are in fact shown in precisely the same relationship to the women as those in the Warning Against Idle Gossip – in other words the women are doing the Devil’s work, but only unwittingly so, I think, in the sense that they are distracted from holy things by wordly, frivolous and ‘idle’ ones.

There remains the mysterious inscription on the scroll held by the chief devil and on this point I pass on a suggestion recently received from Alan Crozier of the newsgroup soc.history.medieval. He suggests that the word ‘ CELIA’ might be a corruption of ‘calicem’ (chalice) and the intention might be to warn of St Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians now quoted at the top of this page.I think this is an excellent insight, and I am happy to acknowledge it here as a very plausible suggestion. The inscription is far from clear, and medieval Latin is often far from pure. Alan Crozier and another member of his group go on to suggest that a further Pauline warning about those who come to church while ‘there are divisions among you’ (I Corinthians 11: 18) would certainly apply to the quarrelsome women in paintings of the Warning Against Idle Gossip.

One objection to this interpretation might be that the object held by the women is manifestly not a chalice. But it has to be remembered that Communion in both kinds (i.e. both bread and wine) was not given to the people at large in Medieval England – only the priest drank the wine, and Communion in both kinds was a Reformation demand. Bearing that in mind, the object in the painting becomes a paten or plate for holding the wafers, which it certainly resembles. It seems to me that what matters most here is the symbolic meaning of the Mass and of presenting oneself at the Lord’s table rather than the literal representation of it in a picture, and I think contemporaries would have understood that quite readily.

Tristram suggested that ‘CELIA’ was a misreading, and suggested ‘cellam’ – ‘the secret place, or storehouse’ of the Devil. Alternatively, he thought, the correct reading might be ‘gauda’ – ‘the Devil’s gaud, or jewel’.³ The idea of a place where the Devil conceals himself seems to me the more plausible of the two, and I wonder whether this object is actually a mirror. In itself, the mirror is often used to symbolise vanity, and there are proverbs about women looking in mirrors in certain conditions or at certain times of the day/month/year and seeing the Devil reflected there. A painted table-board showing the Seven Deadly Sins by Hieronymus Bosch4 (active 1474; died 1516) shows Pride (‘Superbia’) as a woman adjusting a fancy headress and looking in a mirror. She sees only her own face reflected, but we see that the mirror is held by a devil half concealed by a cupboard and wearing, in grotesque parody of the woman, a headdress similar to her own.

So perhaps this is a very imaginative warning about female vanity, a subject much preached about and generally inveighed againSt At all events I think it is far more likely to be that than a Black Mass. But ideas and opinions about this painting – I have never seen another like it – would be very welcome.

Website for S Michael with St Mary, Melbourne

¹ J.Sprenger & H.Kramer, Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witchcraft)1486, p.85-86, Folio Society (abridged edn.) 1968
² EW Tristram, English Medieval Wall Paintings: The 14th century, London, 1954, pp.111
³ One is in the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, another in the Bodleian Library, Oxford [91MS.Rawl D410fl]
4 This painted table-board is still in the Prado Museum, Madrid, so far as I know.
† in page heading = Diocese