Mediaeval symbolism can make you scream with terror

There’s one challenge that missing in my previous symbolism post.  With the invention of photography, a lot of good old symbolism has been lost, dissipated in the currents of time…

So, can you, a modern observer, guess what is going on in this wonderfully crafted illustration from a mediaeval manuscript?

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What’s your first impression?

When I saw it for the first time, I loved the guy behind the wall who seems to be saying, “Oh, all right, I’ll come later then”. 


  1. It is very likely you know the story!
  2. These are stones in the apron of the lady.

And check out the Rabit Rabbits and Merry Nuns, if you missed it.


My wonderful reader Neda was spot on with her suggestion that this is a mediaeval view on the Greek myth of Cronos. It is a well-known story, but mediaeval clothes of the characters are muddling the brain.

Cronos came to power by castrating his father Uranus. If this method strikes you as rather extraordinary, think of presidential races, military coups, and Scotland’s vote for independence, metaphorically.

The woman with stones in her apron is Rhea, originally Cronos’ sister, and then his wife. She bore him six kids, and he swallowed five of them after they were born, because of a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. It was Zeus who survived after Rhea fed Cronos a stone instead of the newborn boy. Years later, Zeus defeated his father and put him in the underworld Tartarus, a prototype retirement home. Not an unusual son-father relationship, one may say.

Before sending his father off to the underworld, Zeus made him to disgorge his brothers and sisters, one of whom he’d marry later.


  1. Chronos! I get it now. I was working on some medieval theory, but I remember now artists dressed their mythical characters in contemporary threads. I read somewhere that time is relative in triptychs for example and the images are not necessarily contemporaneous. The old geezer getting himself castrated could be separated in the back story by a generation and geography without the audience of the time blinking an eye. And no personality or individual is represented anyway, any more than Vice in a morality play is somebody in particular.

    So that was a good quiz. Thanks.

    1. You are absolutely right, time and space are as relative in mediaeval illustrations or paintings as they are currently are, for instance, in India, where “a couple of minutes” walk turns out to be a 40-minute brisk pace journey, and “around the corner” is some miles to the corner plus a mile after. In this particular illustration the most confusing element is the presence of all the kids, and some of them quite grown-up at that, while the memory tells you they can’t be there) Thank you for getting back to me with your insights!

  2. Your art is wonderful and I am so happy to have found this blog! There is no blog better for me to ask if you are interested in a guest post? As a fellow art lover, I have not yet posted about art, however I would love to write a blog post especially for you. If you will consider, please allow yourself to look at my online portfolios:
    Would love to get in touch with you to talk about this further, email me!
    Thank you x


    1. Hello Katie, thank you for your kind words. I will be checking your work in the next few days (I am on vacation, and stay disconnected from the web most of the time), and we’ll talk about a guest post via email. I have never done it before, but let’s see how it goes! Cheers, x

      1. Hi! I was just wondering if you have any more news for me (sorry it’s been a while since I contacted but I was waiting for an email from you), would you still like to do the guest post?
        Katie x

  3. Ok, I’ve made some research. The eaten kid is much younger and smaller, has hair of different color than the others, who seem to be rather friendly to the “grandpa, with the pet-dragon. The lady is pretty happy with the fact of genetals complete removal (it’s not even castration) from the greyhaired lad on the left. So, the scene is most likely the result of a rape, cos it was a normal punishment in such a scase those times, and the eaten kid is a proof of the rape fact, and at the same time it has no value for the family, so… to hell with him, let him be eaten. I just can’t remeber the story of somebody being raped and presenting a newborn child as a proof. Most likely it’s from the old testament, that’s why the mediaeval outfits… do not fit the time od the story.
    The stones are for beating the lad after his willie is removed I think. That’s why the guy withe cattelhat is so thankful.

  4. The castration is indeed grim. She’s cheated on her husband and he’s taking his revenge.
    The fellow behnd the wall has second thoughts about a visit with the damsel. Maybe later when her husband isn’t around. He does have that “catch you later” look.
    The Grim Reaper eating the baby is preplexing. Maybe she aborted the children she conceived from her dalliances?
    To me it seems like a take on a morallity play.

    1. I very much like your version, but it’s both simpler and more complicated ) It’s the costumes that are misleading ) I write up an update for this post tonight!

  5. La Dame trompée , fait châtrer son mari, paye les cocus, adopte les enfants pour qu’ils échappent a la mort en faisant un pacte avec le Diable….Et tout est bien qui finit bien ….!!!!

  6. Just read a bunch of folktales and still baffled by this one! Must be a fascinating story to include all of these elements. Now which one is it?!?

    1. Well, come back in a day, and I will write an update on this and the previous challenge. What I can say now though is that the story is not folk )

        1. OK. many thanks, but, if I remember Cronos had also castrated his father Urano. Maybe the medieval book is about Greek mythology.
          OK, I’m looking forward for your next post.
          Good evening!

  7. the old man with the scythe appears to be death, taking away the children, while the mother busies herself with petty things.

      1. I was completely unfamiliar with the Greek myth of Cronos. However I have always been intrigued by difficult father-son relationships in ancient and medieval history and legends.
        The castration seems to be a terrible thing, an act Cronos definitely had to repay.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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