Images of Death

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Images of Death

Consciousness of Mortality.

Whether or not one's pious devotions assured him or her of salvation, the specter of death continued to provoke anxiety among even the most faithful. In the later Middle Ages, the visual arts record this anxiety with a particular vividness. Climaxing around the time that the worst epidemic of the bubonic plague (referred to as the Black Death) wiped out a third of the European population (1347–1350), visual images of death and mortal decay appear throughout Europe. Scenes of the Dance of Death, the Three Living and Three Dead, the Apocalypse, and the Last Judgment reminded viewers of their inexorable fate. Hoping to guarantee salvation or lessen their time in purgatory, the poor often undertook arduous pilgrimages to shrines of their favorite saints, while the rich commissioned lavish tombs, public monuments, and private works of art to express their piety and devotion.

The Office of the Dead.

Such apprehension about death is illustrated in the scene of the Last Judgment from the Office of the Dead in the Grandes Heures de Rohan. The manuscript, named after its last owner, was probably commissioned by Yolande of Aragon (widow of Louis II, duke of Anjou) and executed by an anonymous French master illuminator between 1420 and 1427. In books of hours the office of the dead (a series of prayers) functioned as a sort of gateway into paradise for those who read it regularly. Since all believing Christians were concerned with the fate of their souls after death and wished desperately to find salvation, with little or no time spent in purgatory (in Catholic thinking, the place where souls expiate their sins before going to heaven), the prayers read as part of the office of the dead were a special focus of attention. Another illustration from the Grandes Heures de Rohan depicts the ultimate combat between the archangel Michael and the devil for the soul of a deceased man, whose naked body reclines on a burial ground scattered with bones and skulls. He engages a conversation in Latin with the almighty God above: "Into thy hand I commit my spirit, thou hast redeemed me, O Lord of Truth" (Psalm 31:5). God's response in French comes as a modified version of his response to the repentant thief who died with Jesus at the Crucifixion (Luke 23:41–43): "For your sins you shall do penance. On Judgment Day you shall be with me." The grayish body of the man features realistic details such as stiff limbs, crooked feet, and a limp neck that all imply the artist's direct observation of death or dying. The aristocratic beholder of this image took the opportunity to meditate upon her own mortality and to consider the likelihood of salvation.

The Three Living and the Three Dead.

Humor—usually mixed with a dose of moralizing—focused on human vanity and foolishness and helped the medieval Christian community to deal with the certainty of death. A popular visual "lesson" was the theme of the "Three Living and the Three Dead." Based on a subject from thirteenth-century troubadour poetry, the image flourished in several different versions in later medieval Europe and was reproduced in various media, including manuscript paintings, fresco painting, and sculpture in stone, in addition to printed images. The image normally depicts three noblemen, often hunting on horseback, who suddenly come across three dead men near a cemetery. The three grotesque specters of death harangue them with testimonies of their own past deeds, as a warning to the noblemen about the folly of pride and the inevitability of death. The lesson warns the three noblemen as well as the beholder of the image that "what you are now we once were, and what we are you will become." This is an admonition to abandon fleeting worldly pleasures for eternal life in the love of God.

Funerary Art.

In the funerary art of later medieval Europe, the obsession with confronting death and publicly visualizing one's piety and hope for salvation took many forms. Many great cycles of frescoes and sculptures were commissioned to express devotion to saints and to proclaim the virtue of the deceased. Tombs themselves were often framed by elaborately carved niches in the walls of a chapel or by ornately embellished canopies (as was the case with the tomb of King Edward II of England). Very often tombs containing the mortal remains were topped with carved representations of the deceased in idealized, peaceful repose. The most elaborate of these tomb chests had multiple levels—called transi tombs—with portrait effigies accompanied by solemn funeral processions and grieving figures. Sometimes sculpted effigies took the form of decaying corpses in order to emphasize the divergent paths of the soul and the body after death. A notable example is the tomb of the Burgundian duke Philip the Bold, originally situated in the Chartreuse (or monastic charterhouse) of Champmol. Executed by the renowned artist Claus Sluter and two other sculptors, the tomb (finished by 1414, ten years after the death of the duke) features a portrait effigy reclining above the sarcophagus with some forty mourning Carthusian monks within a curtain of niches below, in a carved evocation of the actual procession that took place between Brussels, near the duke's place of death, and Dijon, where he was laid to rest. This six-week procession over more than 250 arduous miles was undertaken on foot, though the carved representation expresses more playfulness than exhaustion. Each monk, draped in a heavy woolen garment, expresses a unique attitude: one is absent minded, another is bored, one is pinching his nose in mock disgust, and yet another grieves in silence. The striking naturalism with which Sluter is associated (and that was such a hallmark of the later Middle Ages) is employed here both to capture a real-life event and to guarantee the eternal rest of one mortal soul.


Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death. Trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Random House, 1981).

Michael Camille, Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996).

James M. Clark, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Glasgow: Jackson, 1950).

Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973).

Henriette Eugenie s'Jacob, Idealism and Realism: A Study of Sepulchral Symbolism (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1954).

Millard Meiss and Marcel Thomas, The Rohan Master: A Book of Hours. Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (MS Latin 9471) (New York: Braziller, 1973).

Ethel C. Williams, "The Dance of Death in Painting and Sculpture in the Middle Ages," Journal of the British Archaeological Association 3rd ser. 1 (1937): 229–257.

—, "Mural Paintings of the Three Living and the Three Dead in England," Journal of the British Archaeological Association 3rd ser. 7 (1942): 31–40.