“Who was the fool, who the wise, who the beggar, or the emperor?”

Living during the Dark Ages, as the name suggests, was quite a struggle – plague and famine was rampant, wars and persecutions were common, and the medicine of the time could be worse than the condition it sought to cure. Science and technology of the time could do nothing to prevent this, and people simply had to accept the dangers of day-to-day Medieval life.

"The Triumph of Death" Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1562

“The Triumph of Death”
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1562

This created an understandable gloom and the uncertainty of daily survival lead to constant forced confrontations with morbidity and death. But out of this fear, people were inspired to live in the moment, and accepting death as natural and inevitable allowed it to become an artistic source.

Themes such as the universality of death and the uselessness of vanity were common, and were demonstrated most strongly in Le Danse Macabre, an artistic genre of Medieval Europe. It focused on the understanding that treasures and worldly possessions were useless after death, and that life was a fragile gift. Furthermore, without this vanity and wealth, everyone is equal in death.

One of my favorite products of this genre is the graveyard soliloquy in Hamlet, where Hamlet ponders the possibility that the remains of great men such as Alexander and Caesar may now be present in the mud used to seal buildings and barrels.  When Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, he then comments:

“Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint her face an inch thick, yet to this favor she must come”
Hamlet, Act V, Scene I

The most common expression of this genre is a dancing skeleton leading victims to their graves – the dancers come from all walks of life, but having been stripped of worldly goods, they enter the next world together as equals.

But these images should not be taken as being particularly dark or imply that Medieval culture was death-obsessed.  Rather, they come from an understanding and acceptance about the nature of life and death.

Beyond reminding people to cherish life, constant reminders of the inevitability of death can turn one’s thoughts to the afterlife. With the feeling of death all around, both literally and in the art and literature of the time, there was an increased desire for religious absolution and preparation of one’s soul.

The emptiness of earthly treasures combined with the frailty of life might work to turn one’s thoughts to the future and the afterlife.  This in turn may encourage people to focus more on faith and piety for a permanent, and more important, existence after death.

Le danse macabre belongs to a larger genre known as memento mori, literally meaning “remember that you will die”.

Supposedly this phrase comes from a tradition during a Roman Triumphal Parade: a conquering general would march his legion, as well as captured treasures and slaves, through Rome in a glorious parade to demonstrate his greatness.  But all the while a servant would constantly utter something along the lines of “memento mori” as a way of keeping him humble even during one of his greatest moments.

In modern times, one may find a parallel in the Catholic practice of Ash Wednesday, which is celebrated as a day of mourning, repentance, and a reminder of mortality. An observer receives a mark of ash, sometimes a cross, upon their forehead while a priest repeats a famous line from scripture noting the inevitability of death.

“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return”
Genesis 3:19

But beyond practices and scripture, art too could turn man’s thoughts toward death and therefore piety. Michelangelo’s fresco “The Last Judgment” did just this when it was originally revealed in 1541. Centuries before television and movies could provide a rich visual source for emotions to feed off and fears to take form, paintings and sculptures served this purpose.

The image, located directly behind the altar, focuses on Christ’s Second Coming and the Judgment of all mankind. Saints and the Virgin Mary hover with Christ along with the pure souls that rise to Heaven, while demons and monsters drag the guilty to hell. People are skinned, burned, beaten, and consumed by serpents in a general atmosphere of chaos and fear. Even the Saints and Mary, who sit safely among Christ, seem fearful of the display below them.

The painting was perceived as being so terrifying and so real that it was meant to inspire fear, and faith, in all who saw it. Legend says that Pope Paul III, who commissioned it, was so filled with fear upon seeing it that he fell on his knees and exclaimed “Don’t charge me with my sins when you come on Judgment Day!

One can only imagine the fear that this painting might instill, if during a sermon the only place to gaze is upon it, while the world outside is filled with death, famine, war, and disease. I probably would have paid a little closer attention to the sermon too.

"What does my praying avail me now? I must step into the dead's dance"

“What does my praying avail me now? I must step into the dead’s dance”

“Now I have – against knight's order – become coerced to this dance”

“Now I have – against knight’s order – become coerced to this dance”

“Now I must dance and can’t yet walk”

For a full translation of these images, plus many more images, click here.

“Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Scepter and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance”

Unknown, ~1460

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