[Press and Public Relations] Cyber Sin Site: University of Leicester Compiles Database of 'Sinful Images'

A jpeg image is available on request from Miriam Gill

A ‘cyber sin site’ has been devised by the University of Leicester – amassing images of the Seven Deadly Sins in the name of Art.

The collection of forbidden acts has been drawn from churches across England and Wales – and it also covers images of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy – good deeds which contrast dramatically with the images of transgression.

The project in the University Department of History of Art involves establishing a database of Medieval paintings – showing where the paintings were found and exactly what they depicted.

For her doctorate, Miriam Gill travelled to churches around England and Wales. Her research provides the basis of the database that she also designed. This project is the first systematic study of wall paintings at an English University other than the Courtauld Institute and the only project in England to explore the potential of Information Technology as a tool for studying widely distributed insular medieval art works.

“The graphic images of the Sins were used for educating the masses,” said Miriam. “They are a kind of ‘mental technology’. People looked at the depiction of the Sins that caused them to think deeply about their behaviour.

“The pictures are exaggerated and explicit – drunkards vomiting, misers counting their hoards, sluggards dozing. They are rather like a modern public information campaign, delivering a strong ‘spiritual health warning’. Visual stimulation of the conscience was a sophisticated way of teaching people what was right and wrong.

“Wall paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy were popular in Britain from the fourteenth century to the Reformation. Indeed, they were among a group of ‘didactic’ or ‘morality’ images prominent in British wall painting in the later Middle Ages. Other contemporary ‘morality’ subjects included the Seven Sacraments and the Warnings to Gossips, Swearers and Sabbath Breakers.”

A wide variety of schema are used to present the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy in English wall painting. Miriam Gill has identified eight distinct ways in which the Seven Deadly Sins are depicted, while the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are presented in seven different schema. The Seven Deadly Sins are also shown in the context of paintings of the Last Judgement in the Guild Chapel at Stratford-upon-Avon and at Waltham Abbey and their punishment, possibly in Purgatory, is depicted below the Dance of Death on the north wall of the Stratford Guild Chapel (presently covered by panelling).

Seven Deadly Sins: 1. Tree. 2. Wheel. 3. Scenes. 4. From naked man. 5. From woman (speared by death). 6. Around man. 7. Frau Welt. 8. Mounted on animals.

Seven Corporal Works: 1. Tree. 2. Wheel. 3. Scnes. 4. Around Christ. 5. Around woman. 6. Around man. 7. Around angel.

So far, the database has been used by academics as general background to the study of the Middle Ages. People local to the particular churches featured have also taken a keen interest, and the database also serves as a valuable teaching resource.

Said Miriam: “The Sins can be important in understanding literature such as the works of Chaucer and Dante, and have featured as major works of art in both the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

“The database also serves the more general purpose of demonstrating how art was used to spread and popularise visual mnemonic techniques - that is, remembering things through picturing them in the mind. Although many of the parish congregations which saw these images were illiterate, that does not mean they were stupid. These diverse murals suggest that they were skilled at using visual images to learn and recall information.

“It is not just what the pictures depict but how things are depicted. The paintings show social constructions of images of Vice and Virtue and the role of gender and status. For example, the sin of Pride can be male or female, but is associated with high status and often depicted as a monarch. One image shows Sloth sleeping with a church in the background – he is too lazy to bother to get out bed to go to mass.”

The Seven Deadly Sins may seem rather ‘outdated’ but they still have relevance for us today, said Miriam. “People today are not so much offended by the abstract idea of sins themselves but they are still concerned by expression of them. For example, the idea of Lust is no longer a taboo, but some of the actions it motivates, such as paedophilia or rape, remain current issues in our society. For many generations the Seven Deadly Sins provided a way analysing what motivates us to do wrong as well as condemning specific acts.”

Future plans include the possible expansion of the database to include pictures on other subjects. At the moment, colleague Ellie Pridgeon is logging wall paintings of St. Christopher. Only last week her researches brought to light a damaged mural at Bulford in Wiltshire (north of Salisbury). She had been able to discern the arm of a figure. On close inspection this previously unidentified and mysterious wall painting turned out to be another image of the Seven Deadly Sins proceeding from a naked man, like those recorded on the database at Arundel and Trotton in Sussex. Thus, it seems that this is just the beginning of the database’s capabilities.

The database can be accessed via the History of Art’s web page: http://www.le.ac.uk/arthistory/public.html


The Seven Deadly Sins

Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) described Seven Deadly Sins in his Moralia in Job.

1. Superbia Pride, 2. Invidia Envy, 3. Ira Anger, 4. Avaritia Avarice, 5. Tristia Sadness, 6. Gula Gluttony, 7. Luxuria Lust.

(Moralia in Job, XXXI cap. xlv).

The sin ‘Tristia’ was later replaced by ‘Accidia’, or Sloth.

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are:

1. Feed the hungry, 2. Give drink to the thirsty, 3. Welcome the stranger, 4. Clothe the naked, 5. Visit the sick, 6. Visit the prisoner, 7. Bury the dead.

NOTE TO NEWSDESK: For more information, please contact Miriam Gill on 0116 210 9396 email mcg9@le.ac.uk

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Last updated: 03 January 2002 12:26
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