Memento Mori: Death and Hell in Medieval Art

Death is a complicated, confusing, deeply personal and sometimes taboo topic – I only hope that you will forgive me for bringing it up. My own response to it is to try to forget all about it – cast it to the back of my mind – and only deal with it when I have to. I suspect that many people have adopted a similar coping strategy as me. It’s one I’ve found that I can mostly get away with. The mortality rate is blessedly low in modern British society as wars are far way, epidemics are easily contained, and wolves no longer stalk the countryside.

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Demons, like wolves, no longer cause fear in daily life. From the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Begging your forgiveness once again, I’ll have to make the rather facile statement that hundreds of years ago, death was everywhere . Provided you made it through childhood, the late medieval world was still a dangerous place. There were no fire doors, the cleanest water you could get was probably beer, and a nasty cut from that sickle while you were gathering in the harvest could – in an age before antibiotics – very well spell doom for you. Nutrition was dreadful for most, leprosy was no joke, plague broke out every few years and war went on and on.

As death was so ubiquitous, so it seems also to have been constantly on the mind. Eternal oblivion might well terrify me, but for the average medieval human few things were as terrifying to as what might come after if they had been bad. As each and every one of us are, and have always been, at least a little bit bad, then that was a lot of terror to go round. You might very well end up in Hell, and that really wasn’t a very nice place at all.

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Demons burn a sinner in Hell. Detail from the arcade in the Dean’s Chapel, Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Behave yourself though, and the kingdom of Heaven could well await you. Traditionally, a good and pious life were the best way to ensure that you pass through the pearly gates – although different theological strands have disagreed about this over the years.

Given just how dreadful the consequences of leading a bad and un-pious life could be, it is little surprising that a lot of late medieval art is proliferated with images – reminders – of death and mortality. The pleasures of life are vain and transitory, these reminders seem to say, so make sure you don’t enjoy them at the expense of a pleasant afterlife.  The Latin term for this reflection on mortality is memento mori, which translates as something like ‘remember that [even you too] have to die’.

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Detail from a 15th Century book of hours, showing death with a coffin over his shoulder. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

First appearing in books and paintings, soon these morbid images adorned the places that we most readily associate with the death – on tombs themselves. Earlier medieval funerary effigies depicted the departed at rest, but still very much as they would have appeared in life. However, from 1400 until well into the 17th Century, it became fashionable to show the deceased in a state of decomposition. Known as cadaver tombs, the sculptures that they bear can be unsettling at the best of the times. In the English tradition, they typically show the skin shrunken against the deceased’s bones – while in Germany additions included worms and vermin in the act of devouring putrefying flesh. Fortunately, the one cadaver tomb that remains in Worcester Cathedral is truer to the English tradition than the German.

Cadaver tomb, effigy in Worcester Cathedral

The one remaining cadaver tomb in Worcester Cathedral, c. 1600. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Reminders of death often come hand in hand with reminders of Hell. The image of the danse macabre in the Nuremberg Chronicle is sandwiched between two depictions of diabolical punishment. Many churches and cathedrals are also decorated with demonical sculptures and paintinsg. In Worcester Cathedral today, this tends to be kept rather low key, but it might not always have been this way.

Danse Macabre from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Danse Macabre from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

In 1869, a huge medieval mural showing the terrors of Hell was discovered under a layer of whitewash in a church in Chaldon, Surrey. Given the amount of whitewashing and damage done to English Churches over the centuries, the Chaldon doom mural may well be a rare survivor of a once much more prevalent artistic tradition.

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The Chaldon Doom Mural. Image in the public domain.

Hell is a theologically complex subject, and the concept of it has fallen out of favour with many in recent years. Yet it is easy to see how it held a grip of terror on the medieval consciousness, and how images of both death and infernal tortures were used to remind people to live good, wholesome lives, and demonstrate obedience to the Church and piety before God.

Tom Hopkins

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