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Despair in the Medieval Imagination Authors Moshe Barasch Issue Summer 1999 Visitors to the Cathedral of Strasbourg will remember the representation of virtues and vices on the western facade The virtues all large scale erect female figures some wearing crowns and holding spears in their hands are treading on the utterly defeated vices part of whom are male figures Among these two-figure groups is also the image of Hope spes trampling on Despair desperatio Representations of the same subject similar in form to the one in Strasbourg may also be seen in other great cathedrals built in the High Middle Ages This group as we now see it is the final formulation of a theme that developed in the course of many years its history is long and convoluted In its articulated shape it shows how these two abstract concepts hope and despair were visually elaborated over the centuries The question we shall try to answer in the following observations is how was hope and despair especially the latter conceived in the mind and represented in the a rts so that the image would be intelligible to the spectator And what were the main stages in the process of shaping this image The mental transformation of moods passions and character tendencies into autonomous figures a transformation that leads to what we call personification is universal We find it in most fields of thought and artistac creation and in almost all ages It was so it seems characteristic of Late Antiquity and the early Christian era that the internal struggle within our souls were projected as a violent conflict between clashing personifications The classic literary formulation of this topic composed in the transitional period between Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages is the well known Psychomachia by Prudentius a Christian poet writing in the late fourth century and in the first years of the fifth Prudentius Even in Christian culture Prudentius
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