Enter almost any church or cathedral in Britain and you’ll be confronted with discreet reminders of mortality – sculpted angels watching over graves and chubby cherubs sighing skyward.
But take a closer look and you’ll find evidence of the gruesome depictions of death that spread throughout medieval times.
In the mid-14th century, Britain was still reeling from the floods, disease and crime epidemics that followed the Great Famine (1315-1317).
Political upheavals soon followed, and when King Edward III asserted his right to the throne of France, it threw England into the heavy task of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).
And then came the final blow – in 1348 a sailor arrived at Weymouth, unwittingly taking the Black Death with him.
The plague spread rapidly throughout the British Isles and within a year about half of the population – especially in bustling towns – had succumbed to the disease.
It is estimated that between 75 and 200 million people in Europe, Africa and Asia died between 1346 and 1353. It remains the deadliest pandemic in human history.
With so many disasters hitting the country, it’s no surprise that medieval peoples thought about their own mortality.
The only little solace for ordinary people was that death happened to everyone, regardless of wealth and rank. Memento mori , artistic reminders that we must all die, existed since Roman times, but as a result of so many tragedies, it became increasingly popular in medieval art.
The most frightening examples are the murals depicting the Three Living and the Three Dead.
Written versions of the tale date back to 1280. In it, three wealthy nobles go hunting with their hawks. In the woods, they encounter three hideous corpses in successive states of decay.
Horrified, the nobles can only look at this vision of their future.
The message is struck by medieval “speech bubbles” written above and around the dead resembling zombies: As we are now, so you will be, says the second, the most skeletal of the dead. Therefore, prepare to follow me, concludes the third, beckoning the nobles to join them.
At St Pega’s Church in Peakirk, Northamptonshire, the nobles are dressed in expensive clothes and the dead, almost in derision, come out of their shrouds.
In the All Saints Church in Belton, near Great Yarmouth, the three nobles are on horseback. Seeing the horrible smiling corpses, one of the nobles tries to spin his mount, shouting, “I’m going to run away!” But there is no escape, as the painting at Holy Trinity Church, Wensley, North Yorkshire reminds us.
Although the fresco is sketchy now, the legs of the dead are still visible, with worms crawling out of their flesh.
The gruesome paintings of the Living Three and the Three Dead illustrated to the mostly illiterate poor not only that death was a great leveler, but also that pride in one’s wealth or appearance was fleeting.
The morbid frescoes offered a moral lesson to the viewer, and in the 14th century a new type of tomb decoration appeared which pushed the subject a little further.
Known as the Tombs Transi (from the Latin pass , ‘Die’), these morbid memorials were a development of funeral effigies called recumbent figures, which show the deceased at the idealized climax of their lives – the age of 33, the age of Jesus at his crucifixion and death. his resurrection.
Rather than the perfectly smooth features and costly robes of the recumbent grave, the chilled new style depicts the deceased as a rotting corpse, sometimes with crawling worms and rats gnawing at the body.
Royalty, nobles, and high-ranking clergymen all fought to create the most elaborate transitional tomb.
One of the best examples in England is the “two-story” transit tomb of John FitzAlan, the seventh Earl of Arundel.
John served as a successful military commander in action against the French during the Hundred Years’ War, and was approached for greater things. But during a battle in 1435, he was shot in the leg. The wound festered and although his leg was amputated, he did not survive.
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His body was taken to his home in Arundel, West Sussex, where he was laid to rest in his extraordinary grave.
The top half shows John as he was in life – a pious knight in full armor, a sword by his side, and his feet resting on a lion.
Below, in a skillfully carved depiction of a stone coffin with delicate Gothic frames, another version of John can be seen – a corpse, eyes narrowed, mouth folded over teeth, bones appearing through the rotting skin.
The shroud surrounding John’s corpse has come loose, allowing us to see the reality of death contrasted with the glory of life.
It is believed that the Chilled Tombs were a way for medieval peoples to come to terms with their own deaths. It can also symbolize the passage of the soul from this world to another.
The last dance
The hideous corpses of the Three Living and the Three Dead and the chilling chilling tombs influenced one of the most famous representations of medieval art – the Dance of Death , or dance of death.
In the frescoes, on sculpted panels and on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, skeletons wriggled and frolicked with people from all walks of life.
Symbolizing the human need to have fun even in the midst of fear, the Dance of Death also illustrates that death comes at any time to anyone, from the most powerful king to the most humble of peasants.
The Church of Saint-Germain in La Ferté-Loupière, in the south-east of Paris, has murals dating from 1500 depicting a crowded dance of death.
Despite the dark nature of the paintings, the artists have included a bit of cheeky humor – a group of skeletons perform while a bony figure tries to get a reluctant bishop to dance. Elsewhere, a skeleton weaves its way between a wealthy couple, twisting the woman’s veil and smiling at the shocked young man.
In another scene, a skeleton stands between a monk and a hermit – the dance is over and all three bow.
The dance of death is also found in many British churches, including a fine series of painted panels at Hexham Abbey in Northumberland.
The motif became so popular that Hans Holbein, court artist to King Henry VIII, produced a series of woodcuts depicting the subject in the 1520s.
Holbein’s version showed the skeletons as agents of justice, highlighting hypocrisy such as the nun pretending to pray while looking at her lover. By the time of Holbein’s death, his Dance of Death was in such high demand that dozens of pirated editions were sold.
The influence of the Dance of Death continued for centuries – even Walt Disney produced a version in 1929, titled The dance of the skeletons .
And we still pay homage to him today on Halloween, decorating our homes with plastic skeletons or disguising ourselves as undead.
It seems that in some ways the medieval art of death is as relevant today as it was to people almost 700 years ago.
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