Snake-bites in Hell

Moral dimensions of a snake-bite

One of the pages of a lavishly illuminated psalter, probably made in Oxford in 1200, is devoted to the punishment that human souls are suffering in purgatory and hell. In two of the twelve scenes on this page their torture consists of being bitten by devils in the form of snakes, in combination with other forms of unpleasantness.


The iconography of devilish snakes biting humans can be approached from the human, the serpentine, and the demonic perspective. All are covered in Iconclass:

In the section where “causes of death” are gathered we find:
31E233331 violent death by snake-bite
and if the result of the attack is uncertain we can duplicate the E:
31EE233331 violent death by snake-bite - EE - death not certain; wounded person

For the aggressive behaviour of animals we can use keys. Keys, as most users of Iconclass will know, are free-floating, context-sensitive lists of auxiliary concepts. In this particular case we could use:
25F42(+512) snakes (+ animal(s) attacking)
where the key (+512) expresses the fact that the animal is attacking.
The concept is somewhat generic. For instance, it does not include the keyword “biting”. We could make it more specific by expanding the key concept to e.g. (+5121 animal(s) biting). It would be quite easy to add it to the present set of auxiliaries.

The demonic perspective is covered by the concept:
11K43 devil or demons attacking mortals

Dependent on the focus of the project, and the effort that can be put into the indexing, the cataloguer can decide which concept(s) to use.

The Iconclass Browser provides examples of the use of all three concepts.

31E233331 violent death by snake-bite

Two early modern examples: a snake-bite is the cause of death of Eurydice, but it is also a punishment for the hubris of humans who focus on “higher” things, beyond their intellectual power - a moral lesson taught by Alciato’s book of emblems.

25F42(+512) snakes (+ animal(s) attacking)

In another book of moralizing lessons told with the help of animals - Pierre Heyns’ Esbatiment des animaux - an attacking snake exemplifies Ingratitude. Having been taken in by the man to protect it from the frost, the animal attacked him as soon as it was recovered thanks to the warmth of the hearth.