Painful Restoration: Transformations of Life and Death in Medieval Visions of the Other World
Connotations, Vol. 17.2-3 (2007/2008)
Medieval visions of the other world require a revision of some of our current concepts pertaining to life and death so that the complex interplay of these two themes in this interesting genre can be defined precisely—hence the term “transformations” in the title of this paper. There is a second aspect which should be raised briefly prior to the analysis of the texts chosen for this essay: in all of the three texts that will be considered here, the process of restoration from death is accompanied by pain on various levels—hence “painful restoration.”
The primary subject matter underlying most medieval visions of heaven, purgatory and hell is constituted by the events between Good Friday and Easter Sunday: the death and resurrection of Christ as the necessary precondition for the salvation of the soul and therefore its restoration from death. A closer look at the gospels which relate these events will immediately reveal a large and significant gap: no mention is made of Christ’s descent into hell and his triumphant ascent. This gap provides an ample playground for the creative imagination of later writers, intent on filling it and in their turn contributing to the salvation of the soul.
Nevertheless, the gospel of John does tell us at least a little more about the resurrected Christ. And this shred of information includes a reference to bodily marks as proof of Christ’s death and resurrection or ‘restoration from death’: “Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). It will be seen that this means of proof is an important constituent of the first text I have chosen for this paper.