Albrecht Classen

title.none: Vorgrimler, Geschichte der Hölle

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.013 95.05.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Vorgrimler, Herbert. Geschichte der Hölle, 2nd revised edition. Munich 1st edition: Fink, 1994 1993. Pp. 472; multiple illustrations. DM 68. ISBN: ISBN 3-7705-2848-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.13

Vorgrimler, Herbert. Geschichte der Hölle, 2nd revised edition. Munich 1st edition: Fink, 1994 1993. Pp. 472; multiple illustrations. DM 68. ISBN: ISBN 3-7705-2848-4.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

The vision of Hell, but of course also that of Heaven, was and continues to be of primary importance in the religious life of the majority of people of all religions of all times. The punishment in Hell for sins committed in this life has always stimulated the fantasy of writers, sculptors, and painters alike. Particularly in the world of the Middle Ages the concept of Hell versus Heaven proved to be a dominant element in people's mind, and was strongly fostered by the Church's teaching. Not surprisingly, there are many insightful and comprehensive studies available on the concept of punishment in Hell and redemption in Heaven prevalent during the Middle Ages and in other time periods. Most recently Alan E. Bernstein published his The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993). And Arno Borst, Gerhart von Graevenitz, Alexander Patschovsky, and Karlheinz Stierle edited a voluminous tome on Tod im Mittelalter (Death in the Middle Ages) (Constance: Universitaetsverlag Konstanz, 1993).

These interesting studies now find a companion publication in Herbert Vorgrimler's Geschichte der Hölle (History of Hell), which first appeared in 1993, and which, by popular demand, already has appeared in a second edition. This popularity can be quickly explained by several factors. Vorgrimler makes a valiant attempt to cover the entire history of visions of Hell from the Babylonian period to the late twentieth century. The intentions are to discuss the relevant literary, theological, historical, and art-historical sources and to outline the major developments of visions of Hell. This encyclopedic approach is accompanied by a marvelous collection of colored and black and white photographs and illustrations which demonstrate in a highly dramatic fashion the impact which the visions of Hell had on the artists and therefore also on the viewers' mind.

Vorgrimler's study is encyclopedic also in the sense that he does not really find time and space to deal with secondary literature and therefore with some of the critical issues involved. The most important primary sources are all mentioned, of course, and so are the major interpretive publications, but this still leaves the reader in the dark regarding where the author stands with respect to the current scholarly debate about those visions. As an "encyclopedia," this book could not, however, go much more into detail and refers the reader to titles in the bibliography from as recent as 1992.

This publication addresses, above all, the German reader, since, apart from the text itself, all quotations are in modern German translation, even those which were in Middle High German in the original. At times Vorgrimler includes whole pages from his sources and cites them in toto, because the imagery and rhetorical strategies are self-evident and do not require the scholar's further interpretation.

Vorgrimler begins with an analysis of the accounts in the New Testament, as far as they concern the understanding and concept of Hell. The author is a professional theologian, but he does not forget his critical approach and analyzes his sources from a healthy, objective distance. For that reason even the biblical reports about Hell are seen in their literary traditions and are interpreted accordingly. In other words, Vorgrimler does not take these accounts as sacrosanct and untouchable, but rather examines them from a comparative point of view with the intention to detect the ideology and mental structure contained in them. For example, the conclusion of the first chapter with its focus on the New Testament reads (my translation): "The nether world with its shadowy inhabitants was transformed, step by step, into a world of punishments. In the New Testament...the conditions are prepared to project an entire hellish geography" (31).

The second chapter deals with pre-Christian-Judaic visions in the world of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assur. The author also investigates the cultures of Egypt and Iran, but does not go into details. He is much more concerned with the concepts developed in Ancient Greece, particularly by Plato, and then moves into the period of the Roman Empire (Virgil). The third chapter returns to the Biblical accounts of Hell, particularly as projected in the Old Testament (Psalms), followed by a discussion of apocryphal descriptions of Hell.

Vorgrimler has indeed the ambition to cover the entire history of the Western world, as he continues with the major patristic and scholastic writers Origines, Augustine, Pope Gregory I, Gregory of Tours, St. Brandan, and even the mystics Hildegard of Bingen, and Adam of Kendall. Whether he does justice to all of these great writers and thinkers remains a point of debate, but since the focus of the discussion is rather narrow, the encyclopedic overview more or less accomplishes its purpose.

Dante's Divine Comedy with its graphic description of Hell in Inferno naturally attracts particular attention. Characteristically, however, Vorgrimler allows more space for Dante's voice than for his own analysis, a strategy which finds many repetitions throughout this monumental work. Moreover, the author does hardly justice to Dante's ingenious composition when he simply concludes that certain sadistic elements can be found in this poem and that the Inferno served both as testimony for the "realistic" vision of Hell, and as artistic and literary inspiration for generations to come (190).

The eleventh chapter is dedicated to scholasticism and its perception of Hell, which was perhaps best summarized by Thomas Aquinas in his Supplementum, although Vorgrimler comments that Hell did not concern Thomas very much, judging from the space dedicated to this theme in his work (200). The extensive discussion and quotes indicate, however, that the opposite might have been the case.

Although the Late Middle Ages were filled with statements about Hell, the author goes rather rapidly through the entire period, touching upon Mechthild of Magdeburg, Birgitta of Sweden, and the male mystics Meister Eckhart, Richard Rolle, and Heinrich Seuse. Whether Ignatius of Loyola and Theresa of Avila still fall in the category of the Late Middle Ages, and whether the Reformation deserves to be discussed in a separate chapter, is not fully justified and would have required further explanations. It becomes clear, however, that Martin Luther's concept of Hell was not much different from that of his forerunners and that this kind of superstition, as Vorgrimler calls it (238), affected both the Catholic and the Protestant Church.

With the fourteenth chapter the author moves into the modern age, beginning with the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when in the Catechismus Romanus detailed descriptions of the Hell and its purposes were given. But even among the Jesuits criticism was raised against the overdramatization of Hell and the exorbitant figures of condemned souls suffering there. The next chapter discusses the consequences of Enlightenment on the visions of Hell, which were increasingly questioned. At the same time mystics such as the Swede Emanuel Swedenborg (died in 1772) revived the medieval images and described his extensive touring of Hell during his revelations.

The nineteenth chapter is entitled (my translation) "Continuation of Intimidation," which clearly indicates the author's ideological thrust. He describes, in highly critical terms, the efforts by the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century to keep the believers under control by instilling in them fear of Hell. Vorgrimler quotes extensively the French priest Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney from Ars (died in 1859) who preached gloomier and more horrible visions of Hell than any other cleric before him. But even in Protestant church songs and other texts similar perceptions can be detected, as if the Enlightenment had no impact on their authors, who certainly were keen on fighting back criticism of their theological ideology, through a return to medieval, or actually pre-medieval ideas about Hell.

The last chapters of this comprehensive survey concentrate on modern theologians and their views of Hell, such as Joseph Bautz (died in 1917) and Josef Staudinger (died in 1960) as representatives of the Catholic Church, and W. Joest and Heinrich Ott as representatives of the Protestant Church.

Finally, Vorgrimler also examines the depiction of Hell in the history of art, and this both in the Eastern and in the Western Church from the Early Middle Ages to the twentieth century. Moreover, he also takes account of the role of Hell in modern literature and in contemporary life, not to forget two pages on the significance of Hell for the modern film.

A bibliography, an index with subject matters, and an index with names conclude this massive oeuvre. To some extent it lacks in critical awareness and pursues a clearly anti-Catholic agenda. Moreover, Vorgrimler is determined to demonstrate how much people in Antiquity and the Middle Ages were mislead by the Church to believe these "superstitious" images of Hell, and in how much this kind of ideology is still prevalent today. As a cultural anthropologist and as a historian, however, one would have to object to this subjective slant, since this biased (?) criticism detracts from the otherwise excellent overview of visions of Hell throughout times. Considering, however, that many publications circulate today, whether from clerical authors or from lay writers, which strongly evoke medieval images of Hell as a warning signal and an appeal to return to God and to beg for forgiveness (e.g. 425f.), then Vorgrimler's efforts become understandable.

Non-German speakers might certainly also wish to consult this encyclopedic work, either for its wealth of references, or for the excellent pictorial material. As a historical overview of what people thought about Hell, this study mostly fulfills the raised expectations.