Definitions. The term ars moriendi (the art of dying) has three interrelated meanings: (1) any extended theological or spiritual discussion designed to prepare Christians to die; (2) a genre of works originating in the fifteenth century whose titles generally (but not always) include words like "art" or "method" suggesting their special identity as a guide to the management of the final period of one's life; and (3) two closely related anonymous works whose popularity in print in the fifteenth century was exceeded only by the Imitation of Christ. Following the practice of Sister Mary Catharine O'Connor's learned monograph (still the most valuable work on the subject) this article will distinguish the two versions by the initials of their "incipits" (beginning words): the earlier, longer and more widely published version as the "CP Ars" (it begins "Cum de presentis"); and the later, shorter, usually illustrated version (a carefully revised extract from the CP) as the "QS Ars" (it begins "Quamvis secundum"). Some authors refer to the CP as the "Speculum" (from Speculum artis bene moriendi, a frequently used title) and to the QS as the "Picture Ars."
In its late-medieval context "art" means "skill": the ability to apply the principles of a specific body of knowledge to concrete situations. The choice of the word "art" conveyed its practical nature to a world familiar with a variety of such works: for example, the ars dictaminis, the art of hunting, the notarial art, the art of chess, or the art of being a good confessor. The most complete modern catalog of fifteenth-century books lists 132 editions of various arts, including a dozen expounding the fundamentals of rhetoric. Of those 132, 75 are editions in Latin and various vernaculars of the longer CP Ars (39) and the illustrated QS Ars (26).
The Spiritual Logic of Holy Dying. Discussion of preparation for a holy death may appear in a sermon, treatise, catechism, or devotional work and is a problem in moral, pastoral, and sacramental theology. Whatever the literary form, however, there are two divergent emphases. (1) The ars vivendi (art of living), is the special province of preaching and devotional literature; it teaches about sin and exhorts Christians to lead a virtuous life so that they will be prepared for death whenever and in whatever form it comes. (2) The ars moriendi is expressed liturgically in prayers and rites for the dying—especially the last sacraments of confession, Viaticum, and Extreme Unction—and in that literary genre that is the subject of this article—manuals of the fifteenth century and later that teach Christians how to manage the last days or hours of their lives so that they can be saved in that final crisis.
Indispensable to the psychology of the ars moriendi is the assumption that every individual's eternal destiny is determined by the state of soul as it leaves the body. That idea developed almost imperceptibly in the first centuries of Christian history as the expectation of an imminent Second Coming diminished and the dominant eschatology shifted from the Last Judgment to the particular judgment of every soul immediately after death. The decline of martyrdom and the rejection of the custom of delaying Baptism until the end of life also influenced speculation on the form and meaning of a Christian death.
Ars vivendi and ars moriendi are not mutually exclusive, and no author can deny the spiritual logic underlying either emphasis. Nor is it possible to avoid the negative consequences of too heavy an emphasis in either direction. Too much stress on the life of virtue and the uncertainty of late repentance can imply limitations on divine mercy and act as a discouragement to sinners whose repentance is a fundamental goal of Christian parenesis. Too heavy a stress on the possibility of last-minute repentance endangers the equally fundamental Christian belief in divine justice and the correlative seriousness of the call to live according to the Gospel. In the traditional vocabulary, the first can lead to despair, the second to presumption. The ars moriendi emphasis focuses on the final hour, stimulates interest in the circumstances of death, and produces prayers and invocations of saints offering protection against a sudden and unprepared-for death. The ars vivendi emphasis reaches back to a Stoic maxim—given Christian meaning by the Fathers of the Church and special prominence by Renaissance humanists—which declares that no death is evil if it is preceded by a good life. The history of the art of dying finds authors seeking a mean between those extremes, with some drifting in one direction, others in the other. At the extremes are a warning attributed to St. jerome that scarcely one in a million deathbed penitents escapes damnation, and a fourteenth-century scholastic theologian's speculation that suicides might be saved if they fully repented in the moments between the commission of the act and their actual death.
Three general influences helped to mold the literature of the ars moriendi. First, liturgical practice looms over all reflection on the subject. Nowhere is the rule "lex orandi, lex credendi" more aptly applied, and liturgical practice—along with magisterial directives about it—consistently affirmed the possibility of deathbed repentance and the obligation of priests to behave as if it were indeed possible by administering sacraments to the dying. That long history—dating to at least the third century—influences all treatments of the final hour.
Second, theology, reflecting on practice, began laying the doctrinal foundations of a personal eschatology in the age of the fathers. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, theologians routinely addressed the question of whether God would accept repentance at the end, and a series of positive responses (symbolized most poignantly by the good thief of Lk 23.43) gave authoritative support to the ars moriendi. At the same time sinners were warned about the difficulty of repentance at death. The examples of a judas or an antiochus iv epiphanes (2 Mc 9.13) and a popular Augustinian sermon of caesarius of arles (c. 470 to 542) cast doubt on the effectiveness of late repentance, encouraged the ars vivendi tendencies of sermons and devotional literature, and might even be invoked in ars moriendi manuals to temper the enthusiasm for last-minute forgiveness. Peter Lombard took wellworn citations and forged an artfully balanced and authoritative treatment of this problem in Sentences 4.20.1.
Finally, pastoral theology contributed one of the most distinctive features of the ars moriendi after 1400: the exhortation to the laity to take an active part in the preparation for death—not only their own death, but, more and more insistently in the late middle ages, at the deathbed of a friend. In the first two areas the borrowing from earlier traditions is everywhere evident. The evangelization of the laity into an active role at the deathbed, however, is a distinctively new feature of the late medieval ars moriendi that virtually every historian of the subject has stressed.
The Anselm Questions. Among the medieval sources of the fifteenth-century genre a set of questions originally designed for monastic houses was especially influential. Attributed to anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 to 1109)—with foreshadowings in the early medieval Council of Nantes (between 656 and 850) and the Decretum of burchard of worms (d. 1125)—the work is commonly titled "Admonition of St. Anselm to Someone Dying and Fearing Excessively for his Sins." Each question guides the dying to affirm the morally and doctrinally correct opinion. German translations appeared in the thirteenth century and contain, like many later Latin manuscripts, eight questions for religious followed by a slightly revised set of six for the laity. In close paraphrase the latter read: Do you believe in the elements of the Christian faith as they have been defined by the Church? Do you rejoice that you die in the Christian faith? Do you recognize that you have seriously offended God? Are you sorry you have offended your Creator? Do you intend to avoid offending God if He should prolong your life? Do you hope and do you believe that you will come to eternal salvation not by your merits but by the merits of Jesus Christ? Then the dying person is urged to place all his faith in the death of Christ and to respond to all temptations to despair over life's sins by interposing that death and His merits between the judgment of God and the dying person's unworthiness. The dying person is then directed to say traditional prayers including the universally invoked "In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum " (Ps 30.6; Lk 23.46), and one to Mary to intercede in the hour of death. In some versions Anselm is said to have given assurance of salvation to all who complete this exercise sincerely. In the tradition of ars vivendi, however, the last paragraph urges everyone to avoid offending God and to think daily on the shortness of life, the uncertainty of one's death, the rewards of the just, and the suffering of the damned.
The Anselm Questions, and the prayers and exhortations attached to them, were clearly intended as the principal component of a medieval ars moriendi. Like the Last Sacraments, and sacramentals such as holy water, the cross, holy pictures, and candles, they were specifically intended for use at death. They directly influenced the late medieval genre, and striking echoes are discernible in Lutheranism, Calvinism, and the Catholic Reformation.
The ars moriendi as a Literary Genre. Jean gerson (1363 to 1429) initiated this literary form with a work written in French before 1403 that was translated into Latin as De arte moriendi (or variations on that title). It was incorporated (with Latin translations of two other French works on the Ten Commandments and confession) as the third and last section of his immensely popular Opus tripartitum (1404/8). Gerson envisioned the widest imaginable audience for this work—from priests and prelates to the simple laity.
The first two treatises in Gerson's Opus tripartitum represent the ars vivendi, without connecting it to preparation for death. They summarize basic Christian doctrine, explain the Ten Commandments and the seven deadly sins, and describe the proper disposition for and conduct of confession, the sacrament that had been deemed necessary for forgiveness since at least the eleventh century. (Gerson calls hearing confession the "art of arts"—the same phrase customarily applied to an ars moriendi.) Then Gerson turns to the art of dying. In at least a dozen other sermons, letters, or treatises Gerson confronted the problem of how to prepare for and manage the final months, weeks, days, or hours of a believer's life, but the third part of the Opus tripartitum, the De arte moriendi, remained by far his most influential contribution to the subject. Between 1400 and the Reformation, numerous works or parts of works were written on this perennial personal and pastoral problem. In addition to the CP and QS Ars, Rainer Rudolf lists more than 20 works in manuscript and print between 1400 and 1520 that address the twin arts of living and dying and that inventory is not exhaustive. Known authors include Johann nider, Stephan von Landskron, Johann geiler von kaysersberg, Jacobus de Clusa (von Jüterborg), Jean mombaer, denis the carthusian, Johann von Paltz, and Girolamo savonarola. All of them were influenced in one way or another by Gerson.
In organization and content, Gerson's work was seminal. It consists of an introduction and four parts: (1) four exhortations emphasizing complete acceptance of death and renunciation of worldly attachments; (2) six interrogations modeled on the Anselm Questions; (3) prayers to be said by the dying person; and (4) general observations on the whole process. In the first three sections the dying person is addressed directly as "friend" or "beloved friend" in masculine and feminine forms: "mon amy ou amye" in French, "amice dilecte aut dilecta" in Latin. In succinct, simple language Gerson commends traditional virtues, gratitude to God (including the mercy not to have been cut down by sudden death), admission of guilt, and patient acceptance of suffering. He expands Anselm's questions, adding a special emphasis on the confession of all remembered sins, the obligation to make restitution, and the practice of mutual forgiveness. A set of brief prayers include "in manus tuas," a petition to the Father for protection from evil spirits, an expression of trust in the saving passion of the Son, and invocations for the intercession of Mary and a favorite saint. The concluding observations again mention the Last Sacraments, especially confession. Alternatives for those who have lost speech or reason are intimated, the Crucifix commended, distracting contact with friends and family discouraged. Gerson warns that encouraging hope of recovery is a spurious kindness that can lead to eternal damnation. The treatise as a whole balances a sensitivity to the anxiety of dying and the dangers of a scrupulous conscience against a conscientious concern that at least minimal standards of belief and sincere repentance be met. Its direct influence endured for over a century—not the least on the CP and QS Ars.
Manuscripts, Xylographs, and Printings of the CP and the Illustrated QS Texts. The current consensus among historians is that the longer CP Ars was written first, by an anonymous author, almost certainly a German, as Sister O'Connor had argued in 1942. By her count over 300 manuscripts of the CP have survived and only six of the QS. The QS also appeared in 13 xylographic editions—"block books" made from woodcuts—a form of printing that existed briefly alongside movable type in the fifteenth century. The ars moriendi was the most popular among the block books: 61 of 300 surviving copies contain the Picture Ars (none before 1460).
The 75 editions of both versions (39 CP, 26 QS) place them among the most popular of fifteenth-century books printed from movable type. The first printed Latin CP was published in Cologne in 1474; the first Latin QS in Cologne, c. 1475. A German translation of the CP had already appeared in Strasbourg in 1468 (or earlier) and a German translation of the QS was printed at the monastery of Saints Ulrich and Afra in Augsburg (bound with the Dialogs of Gregory I) in 1473. Fifteenth-century France's Latin and French editions actually outnumber the German, and they include five printings (Paris, 1492 to 1498) by Antoine Vérard of the famous and much expanded L'art de bien vivre et bien mourir. In England William Caxton made a translation (from French) and published it as the Arte and Crafte to Know Well to Dye in 1490. And Italy produced 16 incunabular editions, 13 of them in the vernacular, between 1476 and 1500.
The CP Text (Speculum artis bene moriendi). The CP Ars draws on commonplaces from pagan moral philosophy, Scripture, the Fathers, and a variety of medieval sources. Its eclectic nature and lack of clear organization challenge the reader to select and order the material presented. Its immense popularity indicates that its readers understood that it was composed with practical, not literary, qualities in mind. Historians who disparage it for not measuring up to high compositional standards have misjudged its purpose.
The CP Ars consists of six parts: (1) a short introduction praising death and exhorting Christians to die willingly; (2) a description of five temptations (to unbelief, despair, impatience, vainglory, and avarice) with their remedies; (3) a set of questions, modeled on Anselm and Gerson; (4) prayers to be said by the dying, introduced by brief instructions on the proper attitude to death; (5) instructions to be given to the dying person on the virtues necessary to remain steadfast; (6) a set of prayers to be said by those in attendance as death approaches. The two most striking sections are the questions and the temptations.
The interrogations expand on Gerson's clarifications of the Anselm Questions. Revealing the double purpose of the CP as an ars vivendi and an ars moriendi, they combine the didacticism of devotional literature with the consolatory impulse of rituals for the dying. Some historians (Peter Neher, most judiciously) believe that the CP Ars overemphasizes doctrine and catechesis to the detriment of consolation, but that judgment seems to anticipate the debate over certitude of forgiveness during the Reformation.
The five temptations and contrary remedies are the most original feature of the CP. They portray the deathbed as a struggle in which the Devil tries to seduce the dying person to doubt, despair, impatience, false pride, and love of this world. Exhortations to resist are built out of Scripture, the Fathers, and commonplace spiritual wisdom. The text asserts repeatedly that the believer has it in the power of his free will to reject the Devil's temptations. The confrontation between good and evil underscores medieval Christianity's insistence that every soul counts in the divine economy and hence every death is an eschatological drama. A sense of urgency prevails. Thus the CP author commends to all Christians the monastic custom of gathering at the deathbed, recalling that the Rule permits running in only two situations: from a fire and to a dying brother or sister. But the mood here and throughout the CP is optimistic, confident of the possibility of success.
The consolation of the CP Ars is primarily Christo-centric. In its exhortations, prayers, and imagery there is a constant return to the sole efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ, whose merits alone can win the forgiveness all humans require. The recurrent image of the interposition of Christ's merits between the sinner and the Father's judgment echoes the Anselm Questions and foreshadows remarkably similar language in Luther.
The QS or "Picture Ars." The shorter version is almost always supplied with woodcuts or engravings that depict a battleground. "Moriens," the dying man, is beset by devils busily promoting the five temptations, then comforted by angels, saints, and the Trinity urging the five contrasting inspirations. An eleventh picture shows the death of Moriens, whose soul is received by angels, to the consternation of the defeated devils.
The Picture Ars begins by borrowing from the CP Aristotle's assertion that the death of the body is the greatest of all terrors, but immediately contradicts it with St. Augustine's pronouncement that it is rather the death of the soul. That defining thought is part of a very brief introduction (typically fitted onto a single page) that distills some of the main points of the longer treatise. Bernard attests that one soul is worth more than the whole world. The author laments that it is rare to find anyone who prepares for death since no one can bring himself to believe that he will soon die. Gerson's six questions are tersely phrased, and Moriens is instructed to recite them himself if there is no one to assist in this office. The reverent reception of the sacraments is urged—especially a "true, whole, and contrite confession"—as well as total commitment to and constant meditation on the Passion of Christ. It is to prepare everyone for that final struggle—lay and clerical, literate and illiterate—that the most memorable ars moriendi of the age was composed, in succinct texts and vivid drawings. In the block books alone there are eleven distinct versions of the illustrations, and despite variations in detail, the basic iconography is remarkably stable.
The illustrations depict a man lying in a bed placed diagonally across the page with his head at the upper right. He is unclothed and partially covered by a sheet. Although Moriens is always a man, it is a well-established feature of the genre that a man or a woman might be the subject of these instructions. The five temptations and five inspirations almost always appear in the order fixed in the CP version (disbelief, despair, impatience, vainglory, and avarice). Block-book and printed editions almost always place the illustration of a temptation on one page and the textual description of that temptation on the facing page.
The first two temptations are by common consent of medieval spiritual authorities the most dangerous: faith is the indispensable foundation for every good, and final despair is, by anyone's definition, an unforgivable sin. But the iconography of the temptation to disbelief—an idolatrous worshipper, a frankly pagan incitement to suicide, a denial of the existence of hell—gives more prominence to paganism than seems relevant to late-medieval religious experience. The illustration to the third temptation, however, in which the impatient Moriens kicks over a table and creates a mild disorder among the attendants, is an entirely credible representation of a deathbed scene. Many have commented on the odd positioning of the fifth temptation, and the weakness of the original text in the CP, which comprises three sentences on avarice and a one-sentence transition to the concluding exhortation. The QS text is much more substantial, however, and the details of its illustration bring it psychologically to life. As for the somewhat anticlimactic order, the author of the CP Ars had already pointed out that the fourth and fifth temptations speak to the twin audiences of religious and laity: monks being more prone to the temptation to presumption and the laity to avarice. A very brief conclusion faces an eleventh woodcut—the only picture in which the head of Moriens is at the left—showing the death of Moriens. Cross and candle occupy central places. A tiny naked soul issues from his mouth and is received above the head of the bed by an angel. A crowd of saints looks on—preserving the sense the artist conveys throughout that Moriens is not alone, that he has friendly spirits to assist him in his ordeal.
In later editions, other illustrations were occasionally added to the original eleven. The most common, placed after the death of Moriens, shows St. Michael the Archangel holding a scale with a soul on one side. A bug-like devil tries to weigh down the other side, which contains symbols of the sins of the soul being judged. Lost souls appear beneath St. Michael's feet, undergoing various forms of torture. But one soul is being carried aloft, and the soul in the balance—though in the familiar form of the naked childlike figure—weighs more than the material objects the devil has amassed and will presumably find an angel to accompany him to paradise as well. At the end of the fifteenth century the Leipzig printer Kachelofen added two frontispiece illustrations to his editions. In the first a priest hears confession, and as a devil tries to lure away the man next in line an angel urges him to stay. Next to it is an illustration of a dying man receiving the Last Sacraments.
That the illustrations are easy to grasp and didactically effective is evident from the sequence on despair. Six lurid devils assault Moriens by recalling his sins. Inter-mingled with them are human figures representing scenes of his sinful life. Banderoles above the devils accuse Moriens of fornication, murder, and perjury. One says "behold your sins" as a devil points at a manuscript written with rows of illegible lines. The contrary inspiration is no less transparent in meaning. The New Testament's greatest repentant sinners are at the bedside: St. Peter with his keys and rooster; the Magdalen, with her penitent's tresses and jar of ointment; the good thief of Luke 23.42–44; and Saul (soon to be Paul) knocked from his horse on the road to Damascus. An angel exhorts "never despair" while a devil on the floor cries "no victory for me."
The QS Ars (even more than the CP) was undoubtedly intended as a devotional work that would encourage the meditation on death and detachment that Christians were constantly urged to practice. Yet both versions offer practical directions—to Moriens and the attendants—for the management of the deathbed experience itself. The five temptations also seem chosen for that crisis. Whereas the author might have simply opted for an organization around the seven deadly sins, the selectivity here arguably draws on actual pastoral experience with dying persons. Perhaps the most telling evidence that the ars moriendi of either version is not just the repackaging of standard themes of devotional and ascetic literature is the absence of a temptation to lust.
The ars moriendi in its Late Medieval Context. Almost every historian who writes about the ars moriendi has asserted that the genre is the product of an obsession with death, characteristic of late medieval art and literature and directly attributable to the Black Death of 1348 to 1349. There is little evidence, however, to support that link.
It took a half-century after the first and most devastating onslaught of the plague before Gerson wrote the French treatise that became the De arte moriendi of the Opus tripartitum. Gerson refers to the plague in that work, but not to provide a motivation for its composition: he simply compares his "craft" with those practical medical works designed to teach people how to avoid or treat it. Nor are references to plague a distinctive feature of subsequent works in the genre. Indeed, the premise of every guide to holy dying is that the work is necessary precisely because Christians of all classes and states are not sufficiently concerned about their own death. The CP Ars complains that even pious members of third orders have little experience with witnessing death. When, to convince its audience that life is short, the CP Ars lists illnesses that unexpectedly shorten life, it does not mention the plague. Even more decisive, a genre calling on true friends to be present in the final hours does not bother to address the predictable reluctance of this audience to expose themselves to the plague. In sermons, tracts, and even fiction, one finds speculation on the morality of flight from the plague, or on the precautions one should exercise in contact with those stricken with the disease. Europeans everywhere (in contrast to Muslims in the Ottoman Empire) were familiar with quarantines and other measures taken to prevent the spread of the plague. But fear of contagion is not prominent in any fifteenth-century ars moriendi.
On the contrary, the ars genre is based on traditional sources and assumptions that long antedate the mid-fourteenth century. Christians had heard for centuries that they were mortal and that they would be judged as they exited this life. The early development of a ritual for the dying reinforced that message constantly. The ars moriendi 's preparation for death was expressed in late medieval cultural language—depiction of personal devils and intense scrutiny of conscience and motivation. It is not unreasonable to imagine that demographic calamities gave added urgency to the spiritual logic of this response to human mortality. But Christians had understood and tried to ignore that same logic long before 1348, continued both to internalize and deny it as the plague raged, and could not forget it (as they kept trying to) long after the seventeenth century, when that specific epidemic ended.
Because of inordinately high mortality rates among the clergy the Black Death has also been invoked to explain the prominence of the laity and the surprisingly small place allotted in the CP and QS Ars to priests and the Last Sacraments, especially confession. But Gerson's De arte moriendi also devotes few words to confession, and it would be impossible to find a more ardent exponent of confession than he. In all three of these texts, sacramental ritual is seen as a given, something commanded by church law. At the same time, every theologically knowledgeable writer understood that the efficacy of the rite of confession depends on the will of the penitent and that perseverance to the end—after a last confession—is essential. Thus the active participation of the laity is better understood as one of the varied fruits of over a century of intensive pastoral efforts to bring monastic standards into the world—an effort especially nurtured by mendicant preachers.
Protestant Reformation and Early Modern Catholicism. Roger Chartier and Daniel Roche have documented the decline in printing and listings by booksellers of the ars moriendi genre between about 1520 and 1560, followed by the period of its greatest popularity between about 1560 and 1800 (achieving a peak around 1675 to 1700). When books identifiable as an art of dying regained popularity in this later period, it was under titles by other authors, Protestant and Catholic. Catholic books place priests and sacraments at the center of the art, Protestant books rely on justification by faith. Historians have discerned in both an increased emphasis on the ars vivendi. Nevertheless, the Reformation initiated a polemic in which apologists insisted that their theologies provided the most authentically Christian and therefore the most effectively consoling way to die.
For luther the promise of salvation by faith guaranteed comfort and certainty of forgiveness to the dying. His extremely popular "Sermon on Preparation for Death" of 1519 was decidedly in the ars tradition, a fact that underscores the fideistic elements of the late medieval genre and its influence on him. But Lutheranism soon rejected the synergistic elements of the Catholic tradition. Forgiveness of sin through unmerited grace alone, passive righteousness, and certitude of salvation became the core of "Christian liberty." In that form it was eagerly applied to the deathbed, and the consolation of an evangelical death was proclaimed in plays, poetry, hymns, sermons, and tracts. The printing press contributed heavily to this campaign. By the late sixteenth century it was routine for Protestant pastors in Germany to write catechisms for their own parishes that unfailingly contained an evangelical discourse on preparation for death (Luise Klein asserts that it was the primary concern of Lutheran teaching on justification). Thousands of Lutheran funeral orations replicated that message. If the Protestant art became increasingly oriented to the ars vivendi, it did not abandon what Luther believed had been a liberating and consoling provision for the blessed little hour that everyone, especially he, hoped might be granted at the end. In the Table Talk he occasionally recalled persecutors of the Gospel who (in demotic Latin) died "sine crux et sine lux," without the cross and candle that had been for centuries basic accompaniments of deathbed practice. When Luther said that he meant, of course, without the opportunity to declare their trusting faith.
Christian humanism's art of dying has been correctly characterized as encouraging the pursuit of virtue and life-long meditation on death in the Platonic as well as the Christian ascetic tradition. The most illustrious exponent of this approach was Desiderius erasmus, who attacked what he deemed a religion of externals—improper invocation of saints, repetitive recourse to auricular confession, and, in his most acerbic moods, a hypocritical bargaining designed to assuage divine wrath without having to make a change of heart. The ars-vivendi principle that there is no bad death if it is preceded by a good life was explicitly directed against "superstitious" fears of a sudden death without the Last Sacraments. The colloquies "Shipwreck" and "Funeral" parody those mentalities. But his De Praepartione ad mortem (1533) brought to the ars moriendi a new literary voice, a more sophisticated use of Biblical citations (especially Paul), and a distinctive, intensely personal Christology. Printed in 29 Latin and vernacular editions, it was one of his most popular works before his writings were condemned in the Counter Reformation. Erasmus's preparation again disparages fear of sudden death and obsession with the circumstances of death, yet it accepts much of the medieval tradition. He begins with the same quotation from Aristotle that had been used in the CP and QS Ars, and he writes about death as a final combat with eternal consequences. Sacraments are at least commended, the Devil is seen at his most active and dangerous, and fear of hell is exploited. Erasmus's exhortations to trust in the mercy of Christ are eloquent, but he rejects a recognizably Lutheran formula for justification by faith. Most traditional of all, when Satan assails his faith the Christian is instructed not to argue, but simply to affirm, repeatedly, that he dies believing whatever the church believes.
A similarly balanced theological approach is evident in one of most successful works in the later genre, Holy Living (1650) and Holy Dying (1651) by the Anglican bishop Jeremy taylor.
Calvin accepted the evangelical doctrine of forgiveness, and a dramatic colloquy pitting that understanding of holy dying against Catholic "superstition" was printed in Geneva in the early years of that city's Reformation. Calvin's draft of the Genevan Ecclesiastical Ordinances contains instructions to pastors for the visitation of the sick and prisoners in which he affirms that death is the most salutary occasion for ministry to believers. He also warns against delay, lest fear of death render pastoral comfort impossible. But Calvinism added new accents: the importance of explicit faith, the purity of ritual observances, and the godly virtue of the dying saints (especially belief in election and submission to divine providence). These elements—evident in Calvin's own accounts of deathbed scenes, including that of his wife—characterize one of the most famous of the Reformed treatments of dying, Thomas Becon's lengthy and heavily didactic Sicke Mannes Salve (17 editions between c. 1560 and 1620). Becon's art of dying exemplifies the Reformed tradition's commitment to certitude of salvation (N. L. Beaty estimates that fully one-fourth or 17,000 words are devoted to despair). The art of dying remained a theological battlefield as evidenced by Bunny's Resolutions (1584), the puritan author's polemical revision of the English Jesuit Robert Parsons's Christian Directory.
Between 1575 and 1800 Jesuits produced more than 200 works dealing with the art of dying. Two popular examples, by Juan Polanco and Robert bellarmine, reveal both continuities and changes in the pastoral style of post-Tridentine Catholicism. Both differ from the late medieval genre most obviously in their intense focus on the sacraments and the office of the priest. The 20 chapters of Polanco's Methodus ad aiuvandos eos qui moriuntur (1575) recycle Christian commonplaces. But Polanco's main interest is to prepare the priest for the variety of dying believers he might meet—those who suffer doctrinal doubt, fear of death, moral uncertainty, impatience, and despair. The longest chapter by far discusses help for those who have been condemned to death and await execution. In every case the goal is the proper reception of the Last Sacraments, especially the making of a good confession, and perseverance in the intentions those works imply.
One-half of Bellarmine's De arte bene moriendi is devoted to the life-long preparation for death that every prudent Christian should practice. But traditional ideas and tactics for the management of the final days or hours are just as prominent—including exposition of temptations and their remedies, and interrogations to ensure the proper disposition of the dying. A remarkable chapter deals with death "not from ordinary illness" but rather from events like heart attack or lightning; war or shipwreck; and, finally, execution for capital crimes. The last of these, St. Robert declares, are by far the most fortunate because their suffering is less likely to impair their free will, and they can apply themselves with full consciousness to prayer, confession, and communion. Condemned prisoners have the added advantage of help from those Christians who devote themselves to the instruction of the condemned as a pious work and who know how to teach them to die in a holy way. It was just such a confraternity of "Bianchi" that guided the condemned to die in Palermo from 1541 to 1820. The process of conversion centered on confession, with ritual displays of willing submission by the convicts to their sentence. Lay opinion apparently drew the same conclusion about the chances of the condemned as had Bellarmine, for the historian of the Bianchi, Maria Pia di Bella, reports that those executed prisoners who conformed to the confraternity's exemplary pattern were popularly thought to be saints. The path to that paradoxical conclusion stretches back to Christian antiquity, but the most important contributions to its development were made in the century before the Reformation, first by Gerson, and then by two anonymous works either one of which might deservedly be called "the" ars moriendi.
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"Ars Moriendi." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 12, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ars-moriendi
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