Dead Folks heretofore were burned and their ashes put into an Urn. We enclose out dead Folks in a Coffin, lay them upon a Bier, and see they be carried out in a Funeral Pomp, towards the Church-yard, where they are laid in the Grave, by the Bearers, and are interred; this is covered with a Grave-stone, and is adorned with Tombs, and Epitaphs. As the Corps go along, Psalms are sung, and the Bells are rung.

J. A. Comenius, Orbis sensualium pictus[1]

This is the way the funeral was described in the encyclopaedic textbook by Johannes Amos Comenius, who lived in the Kingdom of Hungary at the time of working on the first draft of his book (1650-1654). It offered students a concise and accurate description of the material world and of the world of culture as they were understood by the people who lived in the first half of the 17th century. Comenius’s carefully chosen words describe not only how the body was laid but also the way the grave was decorated and the last, solemn farewell in its basic form: with funeral songs and the sound of bells. Thus the sophisticated entry, accompanied by a small graphic print, encompasses the elementary idea of art’s participation in the early modern pompa funebris, although obviously it cannot exhaust all aspects of this rich phenomenon.

The history of death has always been a history of a kaleidoscope of emotions manifest or simply materialised through different arts; hence different types of funeral memorials came into being either related directly to the grave or, more loosely, to the dead themselves. The concept of ars moriendi originated in our culture in the Middle Ages and was initially associated with collections of texts for the clergy to use in the service of the dying. The reason may have been the plague, which killed nearly a half of Europe’s population by the end of the 15th century. Sermons on death became very popular at the time, and contemporary clergymen, like Johannes Gerson, Domenico Capranica or Matthias of Cracow, wrote treatises to prepare each mortal to face the hours of death properly. Artes bene moriendi, or artes moriendi for short, were principally instructions how to die well, and as illustrated manuscripts they became the most popular books almost all over Europe. Later, the meaning of the term ars moriendi broadened, partly changed with time and now its many semantic shades reflect the perspectives of different disciplines (history, sociology, literature studies, history of art, theology). To an art historian, the term refers to primarily to various kinds of artistic phenomena connected with the cult of the dead.

At the threshold of modernity, in the 15th and especially in the 17th century, ars moriendi in Upper Hungary underwent many changes in its reception. Initially, they concerned more the perception of death than the external forms of its treatment. Taught by humanists, Catholics and Protestants no longer believed in deathbed penance. The then thinkers abandoned the former belief in the efficacy of the last rites which would enable a mortal to reach salvation in extremis. By diminishing the role of the hour of death, which had been characteristic for the Middle Ages, and losing belief in the last rites, Baroque turned death into a constant companion of life. Although the roots of the new model of happy and pathetic death of the righteous that happened in a room and often in front of an audience went back to the 14th century, it was in stark contrast with the common mediaeval idea of a dramatic ultimate struggle with fiendish delusion. The teaching of ars moriendi, essentially a belief that the whole life was preparation for death, lasted until the 18th century and expressed itself also in visual arts. Encouraging people to live virtuously and reminding them of the inevitability of death, the concept became a source of inspiration for many works, some of which were requisites of funeral rites always closely connected with religious beliefs in early modern Europe. In Upper Hungary, an integral part of Central Europe, all basic funeral memorial typologies are present, such as a standard tomb, epitaph, mortuarium (a funeral shield which evolved from a battle shield), funeral portrait, or, rarer but not isolated, castrum doloris. All of them serve a commemorative function. In European art they reflect, to a greater or smaller degree, the deeply embedded need to portray the dead, present already in antiquity. On the one hand, they aim to show the deceased’s social status, and on the other, to express personal sorrow of the still living. The styles of representations of death reflected the life of the departed, both though the form of funeral rites and the later works with a commemorative function. During the funeral ceremony itself, music, literature and visual arts were supposed to visualise or manifest the abstract hope of an afterlife, which played a key role for Christians. In early modernity the funeral ceremony had a ritualised form, closely connected with the liturgy, and was directly related to a concrete place. The most prestigious space was then the church interior and the adjoining graveyard, both regarded as symbols of the closeness of the Kingdom of God to come. In the case of Krisztina, palatine Miklós Esterházy’s wife who died in 1641, the concrete place was the family temple of the Esterházys, i.e. the university church in Trnava, the then seat of the Ostřihom archbishop. The church, where the cortège went to hear the funeral mass, was decorated with black cloth and lit with a thousand of gilded lanterns to mark the occasion.

Apart from temporary decorations for funeral ceremonies, there were also some lasting designs for funeral space, as was the case with St John the Alms Giver’s Chapel in St Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava. Imre Esterházy, Hungarian primate and archbishop of Ostřihom, had it built to rest his body after death. It was his first major architectural enterprise, and the first work in Bratislava by sculptor Georg Raphael Donner (1729-1732), of which Matej Bel writes, ‘a greater [masterpiece] rarely has the Kingdom of Hungary seen’. Donner placed the tomb of the archbishop in one of the side walls; the primate is seen in eternal adoration facing the altar with the remains of St John the Alms Giver who he worshipped. Donner’s chapel is one of the most interesting works of his time in Central Europe.

The funeral and the final parting with the deceased were largely ephemeral events, which we find extremely hard to recreate today. Fleeting words and music needed special requisites. The rites held in the Baroque Epoch, at the time that loved all sorts of ceremonies, resembled theatre more and more often. One of the top achievements of the then art of death and funeral were certainly castra doloris. Evolved from solemn deathbed scenes known already in the Middle Ages, these ephemeral constructions gradually acquired a liturgically consistent form, which was of particular importance during funeral rites. The basic construction of these mostly monumental works arranged for the stage derived from the shape of the canopy or dome which represented the sky. So important in Renaissance and Mannerist castra doloris, the symbolism of light retained its significance in later times, but obelisks symbolising eternity and apotheosis, illuminated or covered with shimmering textile, were sometimes replaced with a large number of candles, lamps or torches. Since in the Christian culture in early modernity death was perceived in Central Europe as a process of transition to another dimension, some castra comprised the gates of eternity crowned with, for example, porta coeli – a stairway to heaven, or the motif of the Holy Trinity. Primate Barkózy’s  castrum of 1765 was in the shape of a gate with theological allegories of the virtues of Faith and Love. Such a temporary ‘stage’, usually made of wood, textile and paper, was always given a clear and cogent iconographic programme and made full sense only with the funeral theatre and funeral masses connected with it. Several such constructions, which come from the area of present-day Slovakia, are known to us owing to descriptions, prints or drawings that have been preserved. A later example can be the mention of a family castrum doloris, which Pál Pálffy commissioned for his mother and two brothers in Bratislava. It was designed in 1646 for St Martin’s Cathedral by Giovanni Bertinalli, aided by painters Paul Juvenel and Christian Knerr. A few other, quite well-known likenesses are connected with the influential magnate family of Esterházy. One common castrum doloris united heroes of the battle of Vozokany (1652): László, Ferenc, Tamás and Gáspár Esterházy. It was displayed in the Jesuit church in Trnava and, as Maurycy Lang’s print indicates, it included portraits of the dead members of the family. The next, 18th century works were for Eisenstadt (Pál [1713] and József Esterházy [1748]).Yet, undoubtedly, the most sumptuous were the castra doloris of rulers, such as one of the three funeral ‘stages’ designed by Antonio Galli Bibbiena for Emperor Charles VI and for Bratislava (1740). Apart from the more extensive designs for funeral space, the 17th and 18th centuries abound in numerous smaller or isolated works connected with the cult of the dead. Towards the end of the 16th century and throughout the first half of the 17th, the visual arts of Upper Hungary focused almost entirely on them. A model example of municipal sculpture is the well known tomb of military commander Gáspár Illeszházy (around 1649, Trenčin). Although it came into being around the middle of the century, it shows close links with earlier works because Illeszházy’s wife commissioned the artist to fashion it on her father’s, Hungarian palatine György Thurzon’s tomb (after 1616, Orava Castle). Besides stone sculpture, which essentially consisted in a tomb and epitaph, the works characteristic for the period include mainly the so-called painted Renaissance epitaphs, a combination of different stylistic motives. A good example is Daniel Hirscher’s epitaph (1608, Levoča) of a traditional origin, in which Renaissance construction principles are combined with Mannerist tendencies and a cautious prefiguration of Baroque. In the 17th century epitaphs, which were then a kind of medium of religious and social public appearance, became extremely popular all over Central Europe and started to be very common in Upper Hungary, as well. There their structure most often referred to Saxon models and Silesian aedicules. In the 1720s and 1730s they gradually became more and more monumental, although on the whole details did not dominate the overall effect. One of the best known examples of the kind is undoubtedly the so-called Ascension Altarpiece in Šindliar (1627). Originally, it was probably meant to be an epitaph of the local landed gentry family of Betóty, which was transformed into an altarpiece after re-Catholisation. The work was signed by the masters of Spisske Podhradie and is clearly connected with Jonáš Gelitnik’s epitaph in the Evangelical church in Štítnik (1635). In the second half of the 17th century a number of sculpted epitaphs came into being besides painted works. A good example is Fidés Gerschnerova’s epitaph sculpted by Pavel Gross the elder (1668). In addition, beside the traditional aedicule structure, atectonic epitaphs gained popularity (the epitaph of Pavel Gross the elder, Spisska Sobota 1688), and survived in an altered form well into the following century (for example, the epitaph with the painting of Our Lady in Košice, 1667 and 1725, or F. K. Aichpichl’s epitaph in Trnava, 1758).

A characteristic type of funeral memorials are mortuariums, less elaborate than epitaphs. Mortuariums were carried in funeral processions and later displayed in a place of honour, usually in church. The very idea of a funeral shield dates back to antiquity; its early modern realisations featured the deceased’s coat of arms surrounded by a commemorative text in the centre, and later also a quite richly decorated frame with war trophies and sometimes with figures of patron saints. In the Kingdom of Hungary they became the most popular in the 17th  century. A vast collection of funeral shields is still kept in the university church in Trnava (Miklós and Lászlo Esterházy’s mortuariums, 1645, 1652) and in St Martin’s Cathedral in  Spisska Kapitula (Ferenc Csáky de Kesztszegh’s mortuarium, 1670). Cheaper but of no lesser interest are post-mortem portraits which complete the vast array of works of visual art connected with the cult of the dead in Baroque times. They performed the same commemorative function and were usually executed on the basis of a post-mortem sketch of the departed lying on the catafalque. More ambitious realisations added various attributes and texts praising the deceased’s good death, an example of which can be seen in Elizabeth Rákoczy’s portrait: an angel is holding the text, ‘For her good life she deserved a good end: Bliss, Heaven, Divine eternity’ (1663). Another popular form were half-figures (Baldizsár Horváth Stansith and Katarína Kissová, the 1770s). Post-mortem paintings for church spaces in Upper Hungary showed all the distinctive features of local art, with its characteristic, relatively flat depiction of the figure, a love for realistic detail and ornamentation, which revealed its closeness to the Ottoman empire (to be seen in 17th century textiles). Post-mortem portraits depict both adults and children. Despite a certain fall of interest in this form, such portraits were still produced in the following century (‘Apotheosis of Gabriela Koháryova’s Death’ of 1732 or ‘Dead Child of the Dobay Family’ of 1737).

In early modernity Churches were closely connected both with an individual life and with that of the State, and matters of religious faith easily transformed into political issues. One’s faith was of utmost importance, and funeral memorials were a means of its manifestation because the choice of iconography indicated the dead person’s denomination. Catholics added the rich Marian iconography and an array of patron saints to the resurrection and eschatological themes of Protestants. Both denominations enriched the message of works of art with allegories of virtues and symbols of the vanitas type. Also in this respect the art of early modern Upper Hungary did not differ from the Central European model; even the formal aspect of works connected with the cult of the dead does not show essentially separate features. Like in other genres of art, in the majority of cases these works bear all traces of provincial production, marked with the specific historical context and showing Hungarian opposition against the art promoted by the Habsburgs. As it was mentioned above, Baroque laid a particular emphasis on the belief that one had to deserve glorious death with the whole life. The important task of preparing people to die and to afterlife was largely undertaken by numerous associations and religious brotherhoods. Funerals of their members were an important area of their activity; various corporations took part in them depending on the deceased’s social position, for example craftsmen’s guilds or the town council. For that purpose, they were provided with the patron’s painting, which they laid on the coffin or next to it, with banners and sometimes with funeral robes put on for the cortège which proceeded with lights and flowers to the accompaniment of music. An object of interest for associations and brotherhoods was the last will of the dead because apart from the deceased’s decisions as to the maintenance of his living family, it also comprised necessary instructions as to the care for his earthly remains, and more importantly, as to the care for the soul. Not to write out the last will was considered a sin at the time. In that space and time, activities and means which dwelled on the dead person were pervaded with belief in the words of the Bible, ‘When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory”’ (St Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:54). Works of art were a way to fulfil this immemorial human desire. Thanks to them, the history of death is also the history of hope.

Translated from Polish by Anna Mirosławska-Olszewska

Selected bibliography:

P. Ariès, The Hour of Our Death, New York – Oxford  1991.

E. Buzási, 17th Century Catafalque Paintings in Hungary ‘Acta Historiae Artium’, 21, Budapest 1975, pp. 87-124.

D. Douglas, A Brief History of Death, Oxford 2005.

M. Hawlik van der Water, Der Schöne Tod. Zeremonialstrukturen des Wiener Hofes bei Tod und Begräbnis zwischen 1640-1746, Wien 1989.

I. Rusina, Barok. Dejiny slovenského výtvarného umenia, Bratislava 1998.