“What pleasure can there be in seeing a mangled carcass, which is only horrible? And yet if it be anywhere about, people flock to it to be saddened and sickened.”
– Saint Augustine
This quote from Augustine’s Confessiones decribes mankinds macabre fascination with death. It is a sensation that both attracts and repels. Alienating us and at the same time reminding us of the most fundamental fact of living. The representation of death in art has always been paradoxical: on the one hand the purpose of art is to create a sense of beauty, on the other hand, most of us will be quick to agree that there is nothing beautiful about “a mangled carcass”. And yet, as Augustine points out, mankind seems to derive a certain pleasure from the grotesque. We love to be frightened, to be shocked and indeed to be sickened every once in a while. This seems especially true about the death art of 14th and 15th century Europe.
All too often, this death art is considered to be a cultural expression of the suffering of the European peoples due to the Black Death, an outbreak of the bubonic plague that killed around a hundred million people in the 14th century. The plague reached Europe in October 1347, but the oldest visual sources of the Dance of Death are dated around 1425, nearly a century later. The fact remains that life in the Middle Ages could be brutal and sometimes very short. Death was common and it was everywhere. Not just through sickness and disease, but also through wars and social upheavels. As such, medieval death art might be interpreted as an expression of that social trauma and part of our collective European memory.
Yet the origins of medieval death art seem to lie predominantly in the religious consciousness of medieval Europeans. Death was hardly anything unique, but in each work that belongs to this genre (be they paintings, sculptures or literature) there is an explicit Christian sensibility present . The phenomenon of medieval death art is far too big to discuss in its entirety, so for this article I will limit myself to discussing two works: Bernt Notke’s Surmatants (Totendanz or Danse Macabre) and a Dutch block book written in Latin on the Ars Moriendi, or “the art of dying”.
Bernt Notke’s Surmatants
Bernt Notke (1435-1509) was one of the most famous and renown artists of his time. As a painter and sculptor, Notke was frequently commissioned to make extraordinary works of art for a wide variety of clients. His Surmatants, or Totendanz, was created especially for the St. Nicholas Church in the capitol of Estonia: Tallinn (formerly Reval). The work on the Surmatants was completed around 1463. During World War II the church was partially destroyed in a Soviet bombing of the city. Nowadays, only the first part of the thirty meter long canvas painting is on exhibition. In this article I will only discuss the first three figures in the painting: the priest, the pope and the emperor. The Surmatants starts with the figure of a priest in his cathedra with on the bottom a text in a red frame saying:
O reasonable creature, whether poor or rich!
Look here into this mirror, young and old,
and remember all
that no one can stay here
when death comes as you see here.
If we did good deeds
we can be together with God.
We will get the reward we justly deserve.
My dear children, I want to advise you
not to lead your sheep astray,
but to be to them a good model
Before death suddenly appears at your side.
The priest describes the dance displayed as a “mirror”, a reflection of reality, because mankind should remember that they are merely a visitors in this world and that “none can stay here”. Death comes for everyone, taking indiscriminately, sparing no one. Then we will get “the reward we justly deserve” and God will judge us on the deeds we have done in life. There is an explicit warning for the leaders of society not to lead the sheep astray, but to be a good model to them. Next to the priest is the figure of a skeleton playing the bag pipes, who in turn is followed by a skeleton carrying a coffin on his shoulder and the pope wearing his papal tiara and holding a crosier. The scroll of text at the bottom displays a the following dialogue between Death and the pope:
I call all and everyone to this dance:
pope, emperor and all creatures
poor, rich, big or small.
Step forward, mourning will not help now!
Remember, though, at all times
to bring good deeds with you
and repent your sins
for you must dance to my pipe.
Pope, now you are the highest,
let us lead the dance, you and I!
Even though you may have been God’s representative,
A father on earth, received honour and glory
from all men in this world, you must
follow me and become what I am.
What you loosed was loosed, what you bound was bound,
but now you lose your great esteem.
O Lord God, of what use is it to me –
even though I reached a high position?
I must here and now
become a handful of earth just like you
Neither esteem or wealth can be of any use to me
for I have to leave it all behind.
Let this be an example for you, you who will be pope
after me as I was in my time.
The pope, one the most powerful figures in the medieval world, calls here for a procession to commence. A dance in which everyone should join, whether rich or poor. Like the priest, the pope emphasises how good deeds can redeem us in the eyes of God. This exchange between the pope and Death, however, is one we might not expect. The pope is addressed by Death with some respect, as he calls him “Gods representative” and “a father on earth”, yet at the same time Death tells the pope that despite the honour and glory bestowed on him during his lifetime, he will lose all esteem upon death. The pope cries out to God and turns away from the skeleton who is bearing the coffin, only to find another skeleton behind him. Death, it seems, is inescapable. Unfortunately, Death’s reply here is lost and on the scroll, its letters blurred out, only the words “Emperor, we have to dance!” have remained, which brings us to the next dialogue:
O Death, you ugly figure,
you completely changed my nature.
I was rich and powerful,
the most powerful one without compare.
Kings, dukes and noblemen
had to bow before me and honour me.
Now you come, horrible apparition,
to make me food for worms.
You were chosen – ponder it well! –
to protect and guard
the holy church of Christendom
with the sword of justice.
But haughtiness has blinded you,
you did not know yourself.
My coming you did not expect.
In this part of the painting we see once more a powerful figure, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, completely powerless in the face of his own demise. Death openly accuses him of failing in his sacred task. Pride blinded the emperor and now he has become nothing but “food for worms”.
The Ars Moriendi
We can find another example of medieval death art in the Ars Moriendi which literally means “the art of dying”. This was a popular topic in the 15th century and many books like this were produced during this period. Here I will discuss two images from a Dutch block book, produced around 1450. The Dutch block book consists of a number of Latin texts accompanied by a total of eleven woodcuts in the tradition of the Rheinische school. The Ars Moriendi shares an important characteristic with the Biblia Pauperum, as the woodcuts are mainly designed to instruct the illiterate laity in matters of theology.
In the woodcut above we see a man on his death bed as he is visited by demons. The demon in the upper left corner is holding up a scroll with the sins of the man as other demons recite it. “Perjurus es”, “Fornicatus es”, “Avare vixisti” and “Occidisti” are his main sins, in other words, they accuse him of perjury, fornication, avarice and man slaughter. At the same time the demons point at the sins the dying man has committed. One points at a woman with whom he has sinned in fornication, the demon on the right points to a man whom he ruined with his greed and in the middle is a demon who points at the man he killed. The theme of this woodcut is despair and because the man on his death bed realizes that the accusations are quite severe, he becomes frightened of death.
In the next woodcut we can see how heaven intervenes. The guardian angel of the dying man appears at his bedside and tells him not to despair. Around him are images of salvation, drawn from specific passages of the Gospel. In the down left corner is an image of Saint Paul falling off his horse on the way to Damascus (Acts IX), a man who persecuted Christians. Above him is an image of the thief who repented his sins to Christ while he was on the cross. Next to him are two saints: Saint Mary Magdalene, who (according to some Church traditions) was a prostitute and Saint Peter, holding the keys to heaven and accompanied by a rooster, which serves as a reminder that he denied Christ three times. All these Biblical figures were sinners or had sinned grievously, but all got redemption in the end. The guardian angel is showing this to the dying man to remind him that there is still hope and that his moment of death is a last chance for repentance.
The Great Equalizer
At first glance, the Surmatants and the Ars Moriendi might seem very different from each other, and yet they both belong to the genre of medieval death art. In the Surmatants we’ve seen death personified in the form of a skeleton. In the Ars Moriendi, however, death is an event and its unavoidable arrival, represented in the death of the anonymous man, coincides with the visitation of both demons and angels. It is meant to compell the reader to contemplate his life so as to die a good death. In both cases the dead and dying are confronted by supernatural beings reminding them especially of their sins and in both cases these sins are a cause for feelings of despair and fear of judgement. In the Surmatants the priest and the pope remind us of the redeeming effect of good deeds, while in the Ars Moriendi the emphasis is on God’s forgiveness. Both are a source of hope for the dying.
Especially the Surmatants is an incredibly interesting work of art. Death personified is indeed a gruesome figure. What fascinates me most of all, is how this art form directly attacks and ridicules those in the highest positions of power. I can think of no other culture, past or present, that has ever done something similar. In the Surmatants the two most powerful men in the world refer to themselves as “a handful of earth” and “food for worms”. What CEO or world leader would portray himself in such a way nowadays? These artworks express an incredibly committed religious consciousness which simultaneously allowed room for social and political criticism.
It is a big contrast with how we treat death in the modern age. Modern man often seems to medicalize death. It is no longer part of our natural life, but rather a sort of sickness that needs to be treated. When we look at the zombie-apocalypse genre (which we might argue is a form of contemporary death art), it is interesting to note that the zombies that take over the world are always created by some mysterious illness. In I Am Legend as well as in World War Z the main characters have to find a treatment to save humanity from the undead hordes. Contemporary death culture apparently needs a medical or scientific antidote for death. However, it lacks the philosophical, social, political and, most of all, religious themes that we find in late medieval death art.