The cycle of the seven merciful deeds at the parish church of St. Jacob in Levoča at Spiš (Spiss), painted around the year 1400, opens with a scene of a burial. At the foreground, two men place in a sarcophagus the dead body, shrouded in white. Standing behind them, against architectural background of a Gothic city, are two women dressed like wealthy burgesses. The golden halo above the dead man’s head suggests that he is none less that Christ himself. Also the composition of the canvass reveals that it takes Christ’s deposition in the tomb as its blueprint. Similar models are followed in scenes painted in the Friars’ Minor church in Levoča, and in the parish church at Olkusz in Małopolska, both similarly dated, although the affinity between the dead body and Christ is not as direct.

The funeral scene among the seven merciful deeds mirrors the mediaeval attitude towards death, and perhaps expresses the sensibility of the “Gothic man” better than the ever popular theme of Christ’s crucifixion, endlessly staged by art, and typifying another death, a death through martyrdom, that is to say, the sacrifice of one’s own life. Merciful deeds were originally only six in number, derived directly from the Scriptures (Mt 25, 34); the seventh scene – the burial of the dead – was added to the merciful deeds canon no earlier than in the 12th century, answering to the need of the scholastic system, although it has been legitimized already in the Old Testament (Tob 1,17). While in the Passion of Christ – also from theological perspective – the emphasis is on resurrection rather than the actual moment of death on the cross, the scene of interment presents death in its physical, biological form. Including that in the doctrinal list of merciful deeds was also an ethical answer to the question of what should be done with the corpse; in the times of the raging plagues, particularly in the 14th century, in the era of endless wars and executions, hygiene was an important challenge, while the burial could indeed be a practical deed of mercy, serving not only the dead, but also – through his or her relations – the whole close environment.

Let us look at death from another angle still: from the perspective of a potential deceased. Nearly faded away but surviving in the ambulatory of the Augustian monastery in Kazimierz in Kraków, is a scene of the so-called Intercessio – the intercession of Virgin Mary and Christ pleading to God Father in favour of the departed soul. Christ displays his crucifixion wounds, Mary quotes her maternal virtues, by baring the breasts which have fed God’s Son. Better preserved paintings in a small church of Saint Francis in Poniki (mid-Slovakia, 1415) reveal not only scripts upon banderoles, which explain the scene, but also an ouverture to the scene itself: the struggle for the soul of the departed. This is depicted as a battle between an angel and a devil, each trying to capture the soul, which is leaving the dead body. A later and more sophisticated variation of the scene is found in an exquisitely decorated manuscript of the so-called Rohan Hours (Paris, around 1430). Certainly 15th century abounded with such depictions, although only a few survived to this day. Their message usually focused on the man’s moral dilemma – on the tension between good deeds and mortal sins. Another figure for this dilemma was the image of Archangel Michael bearing the scales used for weighing the souls.

Strongly eschatological character of the aforementioned representations, as well as their frequency, particularly at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, lend them to various interpretations; what is essential from our point of view is the conjecture that death then becomes an event which touches an individual being. Even the pledge on behalf of its soul on the part of Virgin Mary and Christ, has, so to speak, a particular address tag attached. In the context of an increasing cultural influence of bourgeoisie in central European societies, it might be concluded that this particular motif seemed to adequately express the direct and individual relation between man and God. The natural process of the viewer’s identification with the dead person thus depicted could happen also in the reception of such works.

Yet another exceptional scene is to be found in the same church in Poniki: two men are praying to Virgin Mary, while walking across the bridge, which breaks into the semi-open jaws of the Leviathan – a popular representation of the gates of Hell. While the two men are about to fall into the infernal limbo, their wives are still standing outside the castle, crying out to Mary and pleading her to save their souls. The scene abounds with quotes from the Marian hymn-book, written in banderoles. The origin and meaning of the motif of the two couples still remains a mystery, yet we know that the image of bridge as a passage to the afterlife could have been inspired by at least several different works of literature, among which perhaps Visio Purgatorii Sancti Patricii by the Augustine hermit George of Hungary (after 1353)1 is closest to that particular representation. Just as Dante crossed through the Purgatory, so did Saint Patrick, but the latter was led by Archangel Michael; and by very much the same principle as with the Divine Comedy, numerous motifs of afterlife derived from the so-called Revelation of Saint George nourished the imagination of mediaeval writers and artists long after the vision was committed to paper.

In the 14th and 15th centuries images of death were mostly tainted with fearsome effects of the plague. This atmosphere shaped not only apocalyptic visions, but also such famous themes as the dance of death (Totentanz), or full-length theological treatises such as the art of dying (Ars moriendi) usually derived from the works by Johann Gerson2. During the Council of Constance and immediately afterwards such texts (sometimes illustrated) travelled – via envoys and monastic congregations – to all the regions of the Latin Europe; no wonder that already in the second decade of the 15th century some of those were found also in Kraków, in South Tyrol or mid-Slovakia. It is noteworthy that in some manuscripts – which Fritz Saxl tellingly named “spiritual encyclopaedias”3, Ars moriendi shares the readers’ interest not just with the Apocalypse, with treatises on morals, nature, and astronomy, but even with medicine. Let us note that in the early modern era, medicine was not the main point of reference in the understanding of death – that reference was provided instead by popular series of drawings and the so-called Blockbücher[4], depicting “the final hour” as a dramatic fight for the dead man’s soul between the angel and the devil, as a skeleton’s dance, or as a trial before the last final jury. Therefore aforementioned compendia, even if surviving in so few copies, constitute a true rarity of codified medical knowledge, while revealing, in fact, the marginal function of mediaeval preoccupation with death: as the latter was simply one element of a wider set of concepts relating to God, history, nature, and, last but not least, life (it is no coincidence that a part of the compendium was consistently devoted to health). Nevertheless, with time, the medical aspect of death grew in significance – since 14th century, in the academic circles, autopsies were performed (Prague 1348 and 1460, Vienna since 1404, Cologne since 1479 etc.), and in 15th-century Italy corpses even served as “anatomical study material” for artists.

Written accounts on the manners in which the mediaeval man imagined death are compounded by visual testimonies, as well as cultural artefacts directly linked with the religious (liturgical) funerary ritual. A relatively large number of tombstones, statues, epitaphs, and mortuaries of different sort were given a common denomination of “funerary monuments”. Although nearly each parish church in the Middle Ages was surrounded with a cemetery, those more wealthy ones aspired to be buried in the holy area of the church itself – and more preferably still, within the choir. This practice was usually linked with a generous endowment to the parish administration or monastic community, while emphasis was also on the number of funerary services performed in the intent of the departed soul for ever and ever after her (or his) death. For the needs of more substantially wealthy aristocratic or royal families, funerary chapels were added to the church and monuments commissioned from the most eminent artists: luxury in life – meant luxury after death. It would be hard to find better illustrations to this phenomena than the marble tombstones of Hungarian magnates Emericus († 1487) and Stephan (István , † 1499) Zápolya (Szapolyai), in the family chapel at Spiš Chapter House, or the splendid royal tomb of Kazimierz Jagiellończyk (Casimir Jagiellon, † 1492) carved by Weit Stoss for the Wawel Cathedral.

In the hymnal funerary iconography in central Europe of the late Middle Ages, single, solitary tones of pessimism also sounded. Like when death was depicted using the image of a decomposing body. For instance Ulrich Kreutz used this model in the tomb of Ján Lobkovic Hassenstein († 1517) in the Observant Friars’ monastery in North Bohemian Cadania5.

The most significant representation of death, both from the point of view of theology and iconography of Christian art, was the image of the victorious death of crucified Christ. References to the motifs of the Passion and the Ascension, expressed in the framework of the so-called christoformitas,are present in most hagiographies of mediaeval saints. In this agenda, it was impossible to bring in other kinds of death – neither the heroic death of a knight during the battle, nor the infamous death of a villain or a witch at the gallows or the stake, nor the violent death by force – murder, including the ritual one, which throughout the Middle Ages was attributed to the Jews. Each typology had several model images at its disposal, to serve the people as pars pro toto of death, and in addition to that, to serve the church for the purpose of control and of strengthening its ideological hegemony. Even suicide had its oft depicted anti-hero, Judas: his representation opened the cycle of wall paintings in Mălamcrăve (Malmkrog) in Transylvania, dating to early 15th century.

We have not yet addressed one model without which our discussion of death in the Middle Ages would be incomplete: the motif of the Dormition of Virgin Mary, or the last prayer of God’s Mother in the presence of the Apostles. It was extremely popular and inspiring, particularly for women, both at the height and towards the end of the Middle Ages, and that in all the social strata, too. Sublimation of bodily death shown as a farewell to earthly life, within the circle of the closest people was expressed in two artworks from Spiš. The first, older one is a fresco depicting in two parallel registers the death and the coronation of Virgin Mary in the Friars’ Minor church in Levoča (around 1350): dominating the lower part is the deathbed of Virgin Mary surrounded by the Apostles, in the background, a figure of Christ carrying his Mother’s soul upon his shoulder. In the upper part of the painting, Mary is perched upon the throne during the coronation that Christ performs. While the Levoča fresco depicts man’s dying hour as if realistically, approximately 100 years later, a wood-based painting from Spišský Štvrtok (which arrived thither from Nuremberg soon after 1450) was intended to stage the last prayer of Virgin Mary6. Over the theatrically poised group, two angels draw out a curtain of precious golden fabric, while two others cast flowers upon the scene. In the canopy, Christ is the spectator of this event. Carried by another pair of angels, he is wearing an imposing crown, while in his hand he carries another crown, prepared for Virgin Mary. The Mother of God, supported by Saint John, is kneeling behind the prayer lectern, with an open breviary upon it. The Apostles say their goodbyes to her, each in his own way. Virgin Mary’s deathbed is covered with another precious fabric – an Italian satin with a motif of a deer, which could be interpreted as a citation from Psalm 41,2: “As the hart panteth after the fountains of water; so my soul panteth after thee, O God!”. Chronological succession of these two forms with seemingly identical content seems to prove that with an advancing knowledge of medical circumstances of human death, also the church staged death as a farewell to earthly life and passage to heaven with an increasing clarity.

Finally, 14th and 15th century cult of death was linked to the nearly omnipresent, monumental figure of Saint Christopher, patron saint of a good death. Often represented in external walls of churches, preferably in a visible location, such as façade, this held a particular function: in case of a sudden death, a prayer, or a mere gaze upon the giant Saint Christopher were able to replace the sacrament of the last anointing. Certainly such beliefs reflected the echoes of folk, popular faith, and not always orthodox theological thinking. All the same, such treatment of Saint Christopher’s figure goes to show that death in the late Middle Ages indeed became an everyday affair, and was treated as an inseparable part of life at the time.

Translated from Polish by Dorota Wąsik

Selected bibliography

D. Buran, Studien zur Wandmalerei um 1400 in der Slowakei, Weimar 2002.

V. Luxová, Memento mori. Formy náhrobnej skulptúry [in:] Dejiny slovenského výtvarného umenia – Gotika, ed. D. Buran, Bratislava 2003.

J. Le Goff, Narodziny czyśćca, Warszawa 1997.

N. Ohler, Sterben und Tod im Mittelalter, München-Zürich 1990.

Himmel – Hölle – Fegefeuer. Das Jenseits im Mittelalter, hrsg. P. Jezler, Zürich 1994 (exhibition catalogue).

J. Gadomski, Wit Stwosz w Krakowie – pytania bez odpowiedzi [in:] Wokół Wita Stwosza, eds. A. Organista, D. Horzel, Kraków 2005 (exhibition catalogue).

1 B. Müller, Die illustrierten Visiones Georgii-Handschriften [in:] Poesis et pictura. Studien zum Verhältnis von Text und Bild in Handschriften und alten Drucken. Festschrift füür Dieter Wuttke zum 60. Geburtstag, hrsg. S. Fuessel, J. Knape, Baden Baden 1989, p. 49-75.

2 Opusculum tripartitum de praeceptis decalogi, de confessione et de arte moriendi (around 1403), the Intercessio scene clearly finds its prototype in another of Gerson’s treatises, entitled Tenor appelationis cujusdam peccatoris a divina iustitia ad divinam misericordiam.

3 F. Saxl, A Spiritual Encyclopaedia of the Later Middle Ages. in “Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes” 1942, no. 5,  p. 82-134.

4 Blockbücher des Mittelalters. Bilderfolgen als Lektüre, hrsg. C. Schneider, Guttenberg Museum, Mainz 1991 (exhibition catalogue).

5 More about the ‘transi’-type tomb, see J. Chlíbec, Náhrobek Jana Hasištejnského z Lobkovic a místo pozdně gotické sepulkrální plastiky ve františkánských klášterných kostelech [in:] Umění 44, 1996, 235-244.

6 M. Novotná, A. Svetková, Smrť Panny Márie. Tabuľová maľba zo Spišského Štvrtku, Levoča 2000. On this theme, compare Gy. Török, Die Ikonographie des letzten Gebets Maria [in:] Acta Historiae Artium, 19, 1973, 152-203.