Walk into almost any church or cathedral around Britain and you’ll be confronted with discreet reminders of mortality – carved angels standing watch over graves and chubby cherubs sighing skywards.
But look closer and you’ll find evidence of the gruesome representations of death that became widespread during medieval times.
In the middle of the 14th century, Britain was still reeling from the floods, disease, and outbreaks of crime that came in the wake of the Great Famine (1315-1317).
Political upheaval was swift to follow, and when King Edward III argued his right to the French throne, it launched England into the punishing slog of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453).
And then came the final blow – in 1348, a sailor arrived in Weymouth, unwittingly bringing with him the Black Death.
The plague spread rapidly throughout the British Isles, and within a year around half of the population – particularly in busy cities – had succumbed to the disease.
It’s estimated that between 75-200 million people across Europe, Africa and Asia died in the years 1346 to 1353. It remains the most fatal pandemic in human history.
With so many catastrophes striking the country, it’s no surprise that medieval people had thoughts of their own mortality on their minds.
The one small comfort for common folk was that death came to everyone, regardless of wealth and rank. Memento mori , artistic reminders that we all must die, had been around since Roman times, but in the aftermath of so many tragedies it became increasingly popular in medieval art.
The creepiest examples are wall paintings representing the Three Living and the Three Dead.
Written versions of the tale date back to 1280. In it, three rich noblemen go out hunting with their falcons. In the woods they encounter three hideous corpses in successive states of decay.
Horrified, the nobles can only stare at this vision of their future selves.
The message is rammed home by medieval ‘speech bubbles’ written above and around the zombie-like dead: As you are, so once were we, says one. 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 mockery, are emerging from their burial shrouds.
In Belton’s church of All Saints, near Great Yarmouth, the three nobles are on horseback. Seeing the horrible grinning corpses, one of the nobles tries to turn his mount, crying, ‘I will flee!” But there is no escape, as the painting in Holy Trinity church, Wensley, in North Yorkshire, reminds us.
Though the fresco is fragmentary now, the legs of the dead can still be seen, with worms crawling out of their flesh.
The macabre paintings of the Three Living and the Three Dead illustrated to the mostly illiterate poor not only that death was a great leveller, but also that pride in one’s wealth or looks was fleeting.
The morbid frescos provided a moral lesson for the viewer, and in the 14th century a new type of tomb decoration appeared that took the subject a step further.
Known as transi tombs (from the Latin transire , ‘to pass away’), these morbid memorials were a development of grave effigies called gisants, which show the deceased at the idealised peak of their life – the age of 33, Jesus’ age at his crucifixion and resurrection.
Rather than the perfect smooth features and costly robes of the gisant tomb, the new-style transi depicted the deceased as a rotting corpse, sometimes with worms crawling and rats gnawing at the body.
Royalty, nobles and high-ranking churchmen all vied to create the most elaborate transi tomb.
One of the best examples in England is the ‘double-decker’ transi 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 tipped 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 returned home to Arundel, West Sussex, where it was laid to rest in his extraordinary tomb.
The top half shows John as he was in life – a pious knight in full armour, a sword at his side and his feet resting on a lion.
Below, in a skilfully carved representation of a stone coffin with delicate Gothic frames, another version of John can be seen – a cadaver, eyes shrunken, mouth peeled back over the teeth, bones showing through decaying skin.
The shroud surrounding John’s corpse has peeled away, allowing us to see the reality of death contrasted with the glory of life.
It’s thought that transi tombs were a way for medieval people to come to terms with their own deaths. It may also symbolise the passage of the soul from this world to the next.
The last dance
The hideous corpses of the Three Living and the Three Dead and the chilling transi tombs influenced one of the most famous representations in medieval art – the danse macabre , or Dance of Death.
In frescos, across carved panels, and on the pages of illuminated manuscripts, skeletons jigged and cavorted with people from all walks of life.
Symbolising the human need to have fun even in the midst of fear, the danse macabre also illustrates that death comes at any time to anyone, from the most powerful king to the lowliest peasant.
The church of Saint-Germain in La Ferté-Loupière, southeast of Paris, has murals dating from 1500 depicting a crowded danse macabre.
Despite the sombre nature of the paintings, the artists included some cheeky humour – a skeleton band plays while a bony figure tries to get an unwilling bishop to dance. Elsewhere, a skeleton shoves its way in between a wealthy couple, tweaking the woman’s veil and grinning at the shocked young man.
In another scene, a skeleton stands between a monk and a hermit – the dance is over, and all three are taking a bow.
The danse macabre can be found in many British churches, too, including a fine series of painted panels in 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, pointing out hypocrisy such as the nun pretending to pray while gazing at her lover. By the time of Holbein’s death, his danse macabre was so in demand that dozens of pirated editions were being sold.
The influence of the danse macabre continued for centuries – even Walt Disney produced a version in 1929, titled The Skeleton Dance .
And we still pay homage to it today at Halloween, decorating our homes with plastic skeletons or dressing up as the undead.
It seems that in some aspects, the medieval art of death is as relevant today as it was to people almost 700 years ago.
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