1996-2014 © Patrick Pollefeys
Here are collected the various works which do not belong to the other categories. Some have Death as main theme; others make of it only a side character. The death of the miser, by Hieronymus Bosch, is a good example of the
latter. This picture is a moral allegory, like most of Bosch's other works. God forgives men if they truly repent for their sins; the picture focusses on the death of the old man and the spiritual duties accompanying it, not on the arrival of Death.
In his workThe three ages and Death, Hans Baldung (known as Grien) explores one of the recurring themes of
German art. At least two pictures of Baldung cover this topic, not counting several others which are of the same kind (The girl and Death, The path towards Death, The seven ages of life). The other works that follow are
unusual variations on the theme of Death in art.
The Black Death
If you ever go to the small town of Lavaudieu, in France, you'll have the opportunity to admire one strange and rare fresco. The St-André church is adorned with a painting entitled The Black Death, which dates back to 1355. In this fresco, quite unique in macabre art, the figure of Death - which stands for the black plague - is represented as a woman. Furthermore, she doesn't look like a putrefying corpse or a skeleton, as usual, but like a perfectly healthy human being. Both her hands hold arrows; and although she doesn't have a bow, many people lie at her feet, each one of them shot through. In Christian iconography, the bow often symbolizes the plague. Notice that the arrows have wounded the people at the exact places were the swellings caused by this terrible illness usually grow (neck, armpits, groin etc.) Saint Sebastian, who was thought to protect people against the plague in the Middle Ages, has been represented like this many times. It is difficult to identify precisely the figures taking part in this dance of death. Nevertheless, we can see there are different types of people: clergymen and laymen, rich and poor, men and women. The Lavaudieu fresco is unique in art history; but it is clearly related to other macabre genres, such as the dance of death and the triumph of death. These pictures, as well as The Black Death, show people from different social classes and convey the same lesson: death can take anybody away, whatever the social class he belongs to.
Death and the miser
This picture of Hieronymus Bosch goes back to 1490. It represents a man on his death-bed. An angel tries to draw the dying man's attention towards the crucifix, which faces the window, illuminated by a divine light. However, the man is more attracted by the purse that is given to him by a devil. Even at the very moment of his death, he remains primarily attached to his material possessions... Death has already come into the room, but the dying man does not realize yet that his redemption or damnation depends on the way he will live his death. Some hellish creatures try to tempt the miser, staying in his coffer, surrounding his clothing and weapons, entreating him not to leave his material possessions, since a man ready to sacrifice them is saved. Death is represented in a traditional way. It carries an arrow, which symbolizes his taking of the miser's life. The old man standing at the foot of the bed is probably a Doppelganger of the dying man, which continues to fill his coffer with money. This picture has been inspired by a 15th century book of prayer entitled: Ars Moriendi (the art of dying), an handbook of the proper way of dying. It included eleven scenes: the first five were temptations from the devil, which was inviting the dying man to sin through impiety, despair, impatience, vanity and avarice. The five following ones described states of mind inspired by an angel: faith, hope, patience, humility, and generosity. In the last scene, the angel took the soul of the dead to Heaven, whereas in Hell the devils let hear howls of rage. In Bosch's work, on the other hand, the outcome of the fight between devil and angel remains uncertain.
Dance of the skeletons
This wood engraving by Michael Wolgemut was part of the Liber Chronicum (The World's Chronical), a book written by Hartmann Schedel and published in 1493. This book is also known as the Chronical of Nuremberg. It is important to distinguish this "dance of the deads" or "dance of the skeletons" from the "Dance of Death " itself. The first one is based on folk superstition and represents only skeletons by themselves; the second is a social and spiritual lesson and always represents Death coupled with a living. This work of Wolgemut shows corpses with their internal organs coming out of their cavities, and also dancing skeletons. It mimics of one of the most intensive human activities - dancing - and is a burlesque imitation of life. This scene shows a medieval superstition according to which, during certain nights, dead people came out of their tombs to dance in cemeteries before going in search of victims. Those dead people do not dance with the living ones, but jump around, urging a skeleton to get out of an open tomb. These dead ones, who have fun by themselves, without any living ones, bring a new definition of the macabre art. This engraving is an unusual representation of the Christian lesson of the waking up of the deads during the Last Judgement, which announces the end of the world.
The legend of the grateful dead
This fresco located in Baar, Switzerland, was painted on an ossuary wall in the first half of the 16th century. In 1740, it was restored and heavily modified. Still, the Legend of the grateful and helpful dead of Baar is one of the best examples of a very rare macabre genre. In the Baar picture, a man is chased by a band of thieves. Sheltering in a cemetery, he kneels down and prays for help. Grateful for the prayers this man piously says so that their souls rest in peace, the dead arise and walk out of their graves to protect him, some with scythes, others with sticks. This tale belongs exclusively to the Germanic culture; is was widespread in Switzerland, and to a lesser extent in Germany. The Legend of the grateful and helpful dead taught people a lesson quite different from the other macabre genres. The Legend of the three living and the three dead, the dance of death and the triumph of death show that all men must die; here, the grateful dead remind us to pray in memory of the ones we loved. Instead of being a menace, the fleshless corpses lend a hand to the people crying out in fear.
The three ages and Death
With the three ages and Death, Hans Baldung Grien painted an allegory of life full of symbols. It is an allegory of life, in spite of the arid and desiccated landscape, in spite of the three sad women, from the birth to old age, who do not express any joy. Death holds a hour-glass in his hand, a traditional symbol for the passing of time. It has its arm around the old woman's arm, taking her towards the other world. Nevertheless, life goes on: on of the women is a girl in age to procreate. The lance, which Death holds, is a clear symbol of defloration. The woman will bear a child, who will also grow and one day find herself in the arms of Death. Anything must submit to time, but nature survives, thus always perpetuating the cycle of life and providing it with beauty and youth.
Death as a mower with bandaged eyes
This work was carried out by an unknown artist of the 17th century. Death is often represented with a horse, a musical instrument, or with a bow and arrows, but also sometimes with a scythe; this drawing unites the last two characteristics, which is rather rare. Thebandaged eyes of Death are a clear symbol: it mows everybody, without making any difference. It is difficult to determine to which sex this androgyne silhouette belongs - is this a delicate man or an athletic woman? Another thing on this picture is strange: Death is seldom represented as a human being showing apparently no sign of decomposition. The artists of that time used to prefer skeletons, rotting corpses, and other beauties of that kind, which were undoubtedly much more efficient in transmitting the feelings of fear and horror.
Death as a friend
This work of Alfred Rethel was engraved in 1851. It is one of the very rare positive representations of Death as a friend. It is the peaceful image of a bell ringer, dying on a chair while while watching the sun set. Death has come to ring the vespers at his place, tolling his death at the same time.
This work of Max Klinger, carried out in 1889, is part of a cycle entitled Of Death. The fourth sheet represents the child; a mother fell asleep on a bank. There is an empty pram at her side; on the right, Death follows the path, taking away the child, who probably fell from the landau.
The best doctor
Alfred Kubin, the " priest of the Hells ", the " Austrian Goya ", had a tortured and conflictual soul. He suffered much while creating, and the theme of Death takes a significant place in his works. One of his first drawings represents Death, "the best doctor ", over the bed of a dying man. The feminine silhouette of Death, dressed in black with a medal around her neck, is frightful, just like the dying one's, a too long body clad in white. We have here one of the rare representations of Death as a woman.