Tuesday 20 November 2018

“As thou art, so once was I” by Carolyn Hughes

I've been delving once more into the history of plague in the fourteenth century, in preparation for writing the fourth book in my novel series, the Meonbridge Chronicles. In my reading, I came across a reference to the story of “the three living and the three dead”, and to the images of these unhappy characters that abound in European churches, including many in England. I’ve known about this trope for years, but I was prompted to revisit briefly what I had read before about the effect of the Black Death on art in Europe, simply out of fascination! I apologise in advance that this is not going to be a very cheery little piece!

There are three types of art that I am looking at in this context: images of the “three living and three dead”, in manuscripts and on church walls throughout Europe; cadaver or memento mori tombs, and portrayals of the danse macabre or Dance of Death.

The three living and the three dead
The three living and three dead was a common theme in paintings prior to the arrival of the Black Death in the mid fourteenth century (1348-50 in the UK). But it seems that, after the Black Death, the images became even more plentiful and more shocking and realistic in their presentation. 
The British Library blog tells us a little more about the Three Living and Three Dead trope. The tale was clearly commonplace in Europe, especially in France and England, and dates back at least to the 13th century.  The basic story is that three wealthy young men are out hunting when they meet three corpses, in various states of decay but which can nonetheless talk, and they remind the young men of the transience of life and the need to mend their dissolute ways.
This page from the early 14th century Psalter of Robert de Lisle, from East Anglia, which is held in the British Library, has three kings meeting the three corpses, and underneath are lines from an Anglo-Norman poem Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs. Some of the words are familiar enough: “I was well fair” (Ich wes wel fair) say the corpses, and “Such shall you be” (Such schel tou be). We will meet these sentiments again.
By “De Lisle Psalter”. British-Library-Arundel-127.
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
And here is similar image, from the manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France:
By Variés XIIIe (BnF Ms 378 Roman de la rose).
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
I am struck by how, in both these manuscripts, the corpses look so very cheerful, as if they are saying “yah sucks to you”!
An Italian fresco in the Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, painted by Buonamico Buffalmacco probably in 1338-39, roughly a decade before the Black Death spread across Europe, shows The Three Dead and the Three Living, as well as the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgement, and Hell. It is a bit more serious in tone than the two manuscripts. A group of youths are enjoying themselves in the garden while angels of Death collect corpses over their heads. The painting is thought to have inspired the setting of Boccaccio’s Decameron, written a few years after the Black Death and, apparently, Buffalmacco himself is depicted in three of the Decameron’s stories as a merry prankster. How very curious!
Fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco in Pisa.
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Images of the three living and three dead abound on church walls throughout Europe, including many in England. Of the English examples, I’ll show two, both 14th century and both from Norfolk: one from the church of St Margaret and St Remigius in Seething, and another from St Andrew’s Church in Wickhampton.
Part of the mural in Seething.Evelyn Simak / The church of SS Margaret and Remigius,
in Seething - Three Living and Three Dead - CC BY-SA 2.0.

Part of the mural in Wickhampton.
By David from Colorado Springs, United States
(St Andrew’s church Wickhampton Norfolk).
[CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Again, how very cheerful those grinning corpses are, presumably having a huge laugh at the expense of the living!

Cadaver tombs
Much less jolly-seeming, however, are the cadaver or memento mori tombs, which became popular, if that can be the right word, in the 15th century. An understanding of the inevitability of death and the ultimate futility of wealth, power or beauty is depicted clearly in the gruesomeness of their sculptures.
A cadaver tomb is a type of gisant, a recumbent effigy tomb, which has an effigy of a decomposing corpse, often shrouded and sometimes complete with worms, either on its own or together with an effigy of the living (in a “double-decker” tomb). Memento mori (“remember (that) you will die”) is a medieval reflection on the vanity and transience of earthly life
The “before” and “after” images of the deceased on these tombs are reminiscent of the three living and the three dead.
Cadaver tombs were of course only for high-ranking people because one had to be rich to afford to have one made, and powerful enough to be allotted space for it in the church. Which is rather ironic given the nature of the memento mori premise...
Examples in England include the tomb and effigy of John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel, who died in 1435, in the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel, West Sussex, which I have seen. The sculpture of the corpse is hideously realistic.
The Earl of Arundel’s tomb. By Lampman.
[CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons]
Another example is this one in Fyfield Church in Essex, of John Golafre (died 1442), an English courtier and Member of Parliament. Again, the cadaver sculpture below his armoured effigy is one of the more realistic products of this macabre late-medieval tradition.
John Golafre’s tomb in Fyfield. By William M. Connolley.
[CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons]
John Baret, a wealthy burgess from Bury St Edmunds, Norfolk, who died in 1467, doesn’t have a “living” effigy on his tomb, but just a cadaver, and again horribly realistic. And, grimly, the inscription says: “Miserable one, what reason have you to be proud? Soon you will be as we / a fetid cadaver, food for worms.” Indeed!

Danse macabre
That Death is contemptuous of rank and wealth was an egalitarian message that found further expression in late medieval Europe with the images of the danse macabre or Dance of Death. The message of these paintings, on walls and on canvas, is the same: what point is there in wealth, power, gentle birth, beauty etc etc, when the end is the same for all? This populist theme of Death as the Great Leveller was taken up everywhere in 15th century art.
In a late medieval poem, Disputacione betwyx the Body and Wormes (c1440), the poet has seen a cadaver tomb of a young noblewoman, her effigy shown as both “living” and “dead”. In his reflection upon her death, the poet has Worms argue with the Body that their role is not to consume her once fresh Body “with ane insaciabylle and gredy appetyte”, but in fact to devour her rotting flesh quite selflessly, generously even! As we hafe to do, the Worms say, “with alle that wer myghty”, just as the young woman herself once was. 
In the danse macabre images, one or more personifications of Death summon representatives from all walks of life to dance to the grave. A splendid example of this is a mural in a church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia, painted at the end of the 15th century. It shows men and women of every rank and station being led, again by grinning skeletons, towards a grave. (I have had to chop this image in half to enable you to see it moderately clearly...)
Mural in Hrastovlje, Slovenia. Top: Left half; Bottom: Right half.
National Gallery of Slovenia.
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
The leftmost section of the Hrastovlje mural. 
Bibliofil at cs.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons]
Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) was the eldest son of Edward III, but died before his father and so it was his young son, Richard II, who succeeded to the throne. Nonetheless, Edward was revered as one of the most successful English commanders of the Hundred Years’ War, and was thought by his contemporaries to be one of the greatest knights of his age.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his elevated status, Edward evidently thought it right to show humility in death. He died of dysentery (perhaps) in 1376, and was buried with great state in Canterbury Cathedral.
The tomb of the Black Prince, in Canterbury Cathedral. By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD.
[CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons]
But his epitaph, inscribed around his effigy, includes these humble, knowing, lines:

Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
On earth I had great riches
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone.

Sentiments that we have met before in this little review of the medieval art of death.


Susan Price said...

Curious that all this reflection on the futility of wealth and great birth did nothing to make society any more equal. Was it just a fad, a bit of virtue-signalling?

Marcheline said...

I bet that "three living and three dead" theme helped inspire J.K. Rowling's "The Tale of the Three Brothers" in "The Tales of Beedle the Bard".