The Worm that Sleepeth Not by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Sleepless Worm, 1452–61, Wall painting, Church of Saints Constantine and Helena, West wall, Voukolies (Kissamos), Chania, Crete, Photo: © Angeliki Lymberopoulou

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The Sleepless Worm

This passage in the Gospel of Mark instructs the Christian faithful to cut off any member of their body that may lead them to temptation because it is preferable to be physically mutilated than risk spending an eternity in hell where one of the punishments is to be eaten by the worm that never dies.

Byzantine Christian iconography visualized this as the ‘Sleepless Worm’, commonly identified by Greek inscriptions as such (ο σκώληξ ο ακοίμητος, o skōlēx o akoimētos), one of the six compartments of Communal Punishments located in the lowest part of hell. There, all individual characteristics are obliterated and the sinners are crowded together in a tense, claustrophobic space.

The representation of hell was often illustrated in the monumental art of Venetian Crete (1211–1669), and in the island’s rich iconographic programmes this compartment is the second most popular. The Church of Saints Constantine and Helena includes an example which artists (using their artistic licence!) frequently employed when depicting this punishment. The compartment is shown as a square defined by a thick red line and identified as ‘the Sleepless Worm’ by an inscription written in white Greek capital letters. Against its ochre background, rows of heads are tightly packed, attacked by little, white, wiggly worms (in their multiplicity representing the single worm of the passage). While the people’s bodies are not depicted, their hair and facial characteristics are clearly visible; they seem to have both of their eyes intact, perhaps as a suggestion that these people did not follow the Gospel’s advice (9:47) and are now paying the hefty price.

Considering that at the time the majority of the population was illiterate, it would have been the white, wiggly lines, identifying the worm—and hence the passage—that would have been far more useful to the congregation for comprehending this scene and the powerful biblical message of judgement it conveys.

 

References

Lymberopoulou, Angeliki (ed.). 2020. Hell in the Byzantine World: A History of Art and Religion in Venetian Crete and Eastern Mediterranean, vol. 1, Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

———. and Rembrandt Duits. 2020. Hell in the Byzantine World: A History of Art and Religion in Venetian Crete and the Eastern Mediterranean, vol. 2, A Catalogue of the Cretan Material (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Maltezou, Chryssa. 1991. ‘The Historical and Social Context’, in Literature and Society in Renaissance Crete, ed. D. Holton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 17–47


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