Summary · Introduction · Dance of Death and the Triumph of
Death in the Middle Ages
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Memento mori in Art

Medieval (and Baroque) representations of death

In the consciousness of medieval man, death was an inescapable presence in reality: the constant plagues and famines or the constant periods of conflict in those years were all events that certainly contributed to shortening the duration of an individual's life and bringing closer the moment of death.

This proximity, however, did not exorcise the terror, which was mainly fuelled by religious preaching aimed only at reminding us of its inevitability and imminence, and thus of the importance of repenting in time to avoid the suffering of infernal punishment.

Together with the orations, figurative art works also operated in this direction and in different ways, starting with the most famous: the Dance of Death and the Triumph of Death.

Guercino, Et in Arcadia ego (1618-1622), detail. Rome, National Gallery of Ancient Art

💡 Did you know that? Cosa significa memento mori? Deriva dal latino (lett. ’ricordati di morire’) e ha origini antico-romane: quando infatti un condottiero entrava vittorioso in città, un servo al suo seguito rivolgeva lui alcune parole di monito (Respice post te. Hominem te memento, ‘Guarda dietro a te. Ricordati che sei un uomo’) affinché non si lasciasse prendere dalla superbia e da altre vanità mondane.

Dance of Death and the Triumph of Death in the Middle Ages

The 'Dance' and the 'Triumph' of Death are proposed as artistic variants, opposite but complementary, of the same theme: the mortuary phenomenon, a fixed, almost puppet-like character, as the absolute centre of the theatre of life.

In the 'Triumphs', Death, in the guise of an enormous skeleton, imperiously reaps its human victims without making any distinction between sovereigns, pontiffs, nobles and common people, overcoming all earthly vanity.

In this context, the infallibility of the scythe's blow also becomes the messenger of a further warning for the faithful: the coming of the Last Judgement. The end of existence is matched by the end of the world, as described in John the Evangelist's Book of Revelations, the source text for a whole pictorial and sculptural tradition of apocalyptic events, hellholes and torments, which undoubtedly heightened the sense of dread at their coming true.

Anonymous, Triumph of Death (c. 1446). Palermo, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abbatellis

The 'Danze macabre' originated as rituals of death (to be performed in sacred places or cemeteries) with the intention of eliminating the fear of waiting for it and rather becoming familiar with it, especially in relation to the widespread hysteria caused by the great black plague of the 14th century.

Soon, the 'Dance' also became an object of representation: often gathered around the figure of death personified, long processions unfolded in which men and women from all walks of life, accompanied by their skeletons, celebrated the transience of life and the levelling caused by death on every front, becoming aware of it.

Simone Baschenis, Danza macabra (1539), detail. Pinzolo, church of San Virgilio

💡 Did you know? The etymology of the term macabre, which is fairly recent, remains controversial: it may come from Arabic or Hebrew, or from the personal name Macabré, a figure in songs of deeds (hence the French macabre). According to another interpretation, Macabré is an alteration of Machabée ('Maccabee'), according to the 15th-century Latin chorea Machabaeorum ('dance of the Maccabees').

The Danza macabra of Clusone

The cycle of frescoes painted by Giacomo Borlone de Buschis between 1484 and 1485 in the external area of the Oratorio dei Disciplini in Clusone (BG) is one of the most famous creations of the late Middle Ages related to the above-mentioned genres: 'Dance', 'Triumph' and 'Underworld' merge here into a single wide-ranging composition, vertically structured on three registers dedicated to each of the above-mentioned motifs.

💡 Did you know? Giacomo Borlone de Buschis (1420-1487) was a provincial artist from Lombardy who, although working in the second half of the 15th century, still drew extensively from the Gothic repertoire to which he applied weak notions of the new Renaissance art, developing a neo-Gothic and fabulous vision with bright colours and ornate, purely narrative character.

Exterior of the Oratorio dei Disciplini in Clusone

In the upper register, Death personified reigns in the centre in regal robes, clutching two large dissolved scrolls in which she is presented as an invincible and egalitarian force, intent on punishing the guilty and leading good Christians to a better life.

Flanked by two skeletons, one armed with a bow and the other with an arquebus, Death stands on an open marble sepulchre, from which the bodies of a pontiff and an emperor can be seen, besieged by snakes, toads and scorpions (symbolising their physical and moral corruption). All around them are kings, bishops and potentates begging and offering gifts in order to avert their demise.

detail of the Triumph of Death. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

On the far left of the same register is the scene of the so-called 'meeting of the three living and the three dead', another traditional memento mori according to which three horsemen on a hunt cross their corpses in the woods, a mirror of the near future that awaits them like every human being.

detail of the Meeting of the Three Living and Three Dead, upper register. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

The central register houses the grotesque procession of smiling skeletons and frightened, desperate living characters. Among these, starting from the left, one can first make out the figure of a young girl with a mirror reflecting the hallway crowded with dead people behind her.

Detail of the Maiden, central register. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

Detail of the Maiden, central register. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

These are followed by a hooded disciplined monk in the act of scourging himself; a peasant in threadbare clothes and a bundle; an innkeeper with a vessel in his hand; a justice official with a baton; a merchant (or usurer) clutching his purse full of money; a student (or scholar) with pen and scroll.

At the end of the line there is one last well-dressed person, whose social profile is difficult to identify.

detail of the Danza macabra. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

Somewhat damaged and fragmented, the lower band shows the two different fates of Christians on Judgement Day. On the left, a crowd of naked bodies represents the damned souls, welcomed by an enormous monstrous mouth and vehemently incited by a devil with a pitchfork.

Detail of the Damned, lower register. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

Detail of the Damned, lower register. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

On the right, a group of praying disciples look upwards, indicating prayer as the only key to salvation.

Detail of the Giusti, lower register. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

Detail of the Giusti, lower register. Clusone, Oratory of the Disciples

Memento mori in baroque vanitas

The macabre returned in the 17th century to dominate European sensibilities. The population, harassed by wars and decimated by pestilence, and influenced by the widespread Jesuit thought centred on the importance of meditatio mortis, fell into an obsession with death, anguish over their fate and a burning desire to mend their ways. Thus, behind the eccentric sumptuousness of the Baroque, what could be described as a regurgitation of medieval fears is simmering.

Philippe de Champaigne, Natura morta con teschio (1669). Le Mans, Tessé Museum

All 17th century art was affected, saturated with variously configured vanitas. Bernini gave an example of the dramatic potential of the mortuary theme in the funerary monuments to Urban VIII and Alexander VII: in the latter, for example, we find the recurring motifs of the skeleton and the hourglass as symbols of the brevity of time and the proximity of the end.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Funeral Monument to Pope Alexander VII (1671-1678). Rome, St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican

These meanings are widely expressed in numerous other figurative elements, especially when combined to form the so-called 'still lifes': from the cut tulip that embodies the rapid withering of life to the pipe that refers to the dissolution of human pleasures into smoke; from the dice that refer to the randomness of destiny to the soap bubble as a reference to the fragility of existence.

Salvator Rosa, Humana fragilitas (first half of the 17th cent.). Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum

Salvator Rosa, Humana fragilitas (first half of the 17th cent.). Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum

And more half-empty mugs, plates with leftover food, unlit candles, musical instruments at rest: all emblems of the end, of decomposition, of the silence that comes with the arrival of death.

Evaristo Baschenis, Still Life with Musical Instruments, Globe and Armillary Sphere (17th century). Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Sometimes the funereal or apocalyptic expression is rendered more implicitly. This is the case in Rembrandt's The Parable of the Rich Fool, where greed is such that the man forgets the threat of death. Or in Vermeer's Woman with Scales, where a pictorial representation of the Last Judgement can be seen behind the protagonist weighing pearls.

Jan Vermeer, Woman with scales (1664). Washington, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte

Jan Vermeer, Woman with scales (1664). Washington, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte
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