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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art and Death in the Middle Ages

“In…1348 the deadly plague broke out in the great city of Florence…Whether through the operation of the heavenly bodies or because of our own iniquities, which the just wrath of God sought to correct, the plague had arisen in the east some years before, causing the death of countless human beings. It spread without stop from one place to another until, unfortunately, it swept over the west … Such was the cruelty of heaven and to a great degree of man that between March and the following July it is estimated that more than 100,000 human beings lost their lives within the walls of Florence.”

This famous description of the Black Death appears in The Decameron, written by the Florentine humanist Giovanni Boccaccio, who goes on to describe the course of the rapidly fatal disease and also the speed with which the dead were buried. Boccaccio’s descriptions of the pandemic of bubonic plague that struck Europe in the mid-fourteenth century highlight not only the horrors of the disease but also the inability of anyone, regardless of status, to escape it (69.86). While the story of the plague is well known, the artistic record from across medieval Europe offers a broad picture of various ways in which people coped with death, reflecting not only a keen awareness of its presence in daily life (17.190.306), but also of Christian belief in the afterlife and the desire to honor and memorialize the dead.

In keeping with Roman and Jewish practice born of sanitary concerns, the first Christians were buried outside the city, often in subterranean catacombs, into the walls of which gold glass disks were set as memorial markers. For centuries the wealthy perpetuated the Roman tradition of carving marble sarcophagi with Christian narrative (1991.366) and emblems of their faith (25.120.590). In the Christian kingdom of the Visigoths of Spain, simply decorated plaques of terracotta served to mark tombs (1985.147). As in other cultures, medieval Christians were often interred with jewelry and emblems attesting to their rank and their faith; excavated tombs have yielded important treasures (17.192.14595.15.79). The well-to-do sought burial inside the church, usually under the floor or in a crypt, preferably as close to the altar as possible, since the bodies of saints or some of their relics were enshrined at or in the altars of churches, and the faithful wished to be buried in proximity to them. As Maximus, first bishop of Turin, wrote in the early fifth century, “the martyrs protect us while we live in our bodies and take care of us after we have left our bodies. Here they keep us from falling into sin: there they protect us from the horrors of hell.” Dignity and solemnity and ceremony attended the deathbed (1973.348; 17.190.853) and the handling of the body, in keeping with Gospel accounts of the care given to the body of Jesus (1982.60.398) after his Crucifixion. Funerals, whether elaborate or simple, commended the deceased to God. Candles, holy water, and incense (17.190.360) contributed to the solemnity of funeral rites. Prayers for the dead were part of daily prayer as well as the focus of the annual feast of All Souls (54.1.1, fol. 221r).

Christian tombs are essentially prospective, their occupants awaiting the last day. The sculptural decoration of tombs reflects the status of the deceased. Carved effigies showed kings with crown and scepter, churchmen accompanied by angels, knights in full armor (25.120.201), architects with measuring instruments, family members accompanied by their patron saint (2001.221), or even kneeling beside the Virgin as she holds her crucified son on her lap. Later tombs might show an entire family, carved and brightly painted, kneeling in prayer and awaiting the final day of judgment. Sometimes a procession of mourner figures, praying and weeping for eternity, surrounds the tomb beneath an effigy of the deceased (17.190.386). Royal abbeys, such as Saint-Denis near Paris (41.100.132; 2007.540) or Westminster in London, became the burial places for rulers and their extended families. Royal bodies might also be divided up: Eleanor of Castille, for example, left instructions that her heart go to the Dominicans in London, her entrails to Lincoln, and her body to Westminster. The tomb of Louis IX, canonized as a saint, was a shrine to which the faithful, including his own family, came to pray (54.1.2). Some royal and saintly tombs were elevated, so that they could be seen more easily but also so that the devout and the sick could not only touch the tomb but even insert themselves or a part of themselves into niches, thus enhancing the possibility of a cure from disease or of the saint’s supplications on their behalf at the Day of Judgment.

The Day of Judgment, described in the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, inspired commentary and vivid, panoramic imagery (1991.232.1–14; 68.174), while scenes of the Last Judgment appeared frequently in objects of all sizes—from church doorways to devotional objects small enough to hold in the hand. The blessed are received into heaven, while the damned are doomed to the eternal horrors of hell.