Chapter Two

DEATH IN THE LATER MIDDLE-AGES

As touched upon in the previous chapter, death in the Netherlands by public execution through the church and state apparatus was fairly common place in Bruegel’s time, namely resulting from the boiling religious turmoil and political events.  This chapter considers death in a rather different light, by questioning peoples attitudes towards death in the late medieval period.  As attitudes towards death were largely shaped by the Christian Church, it is necessary to include its perception in order to give a clearer understanding of Bruegel’s thoughts, which is itself, something of a quasi – Christian vision.

It would be fair to state that the Church played a pivotal role in the centuries preceding the Renaissance in reminding society of sin, death and judgement.  The message was abundantly clear everywhere, unrepentant sins committed during one’s life, would be paid for, subsequent to one’s death, in the afterlife, when Christ returns on the ‘Day of Judgement’.  The written and visual evidence of this message is overwhelming through the medium of art and can be clearly seen in surviving frescoes, wall paintings, stained-glass, stone sculptures, manuscripts, printed books, as well as ivory and wood sculptures.  Apart from the very visual representations and written evidence; sin, death and judgement were often further elaborated by the didactic preaching of religious and moral teachers, such as the traveling Dominican and Franciscan monks, who would wander from town to town to preach the Church’s message.  The didactic sermons which were commonly heard from medieval pulpits were “an attempt to persuade the laity of the transience of earthly pleasures and goods, and the need to seek eternal salvation at all costs (16)

The “need to seek salvation at all costs” was the overriding Church message of the late medieval period.  Attitudes to death that had long been shaped by the Church’s belief in the ‘second coming’ which stressed that all of humanity would be judged when Jesus returned to earth on clouds in majesty was particularly prevalent (17).  Such notions derived from St John’s Book of Revelation, which implies an apocalyptic end when “the material creation would pass away and only the spiritual worlds of heaven and hell would remain” (18).

Collectively, this doctrine is known as the ‘Last Judgement’ and was perhaps the most visually recognised depiction of the afterlife.  However, as the ‘second coming“ could not be precisely determined by the Church, each Christian’s personal end through death was considered a more pressing reality during the late medieval period.  The Church through the medium of art forms gave visual and written expression in an attempt to remind mortal humans of death and consequences.  The richly sculptured tympanum at St Foy, Conque, France carved circa 1125 – 1135 (fig 3) is a perfect representation of this doctrine with Christ in Majesty over the spiritual worlds of heaven and hell.  To the educated, there is a Latin inscription that reads

“O sinners if you do not change your lives, know that a harsh Judgement awaits you” (19)

The Church’s central message of having to repent and atone for sin can be commonly found in the concept of Purgatory.  To those who fully understood the Church’s message, repentance for sin was everything.  Small printed books entitled ‘Artes Morienti’ (arts of dying) stressed ‘the importance of deathbed repentance with the hope that one might be saved from hell and reduce one’s period in purgatory’ (20).  Purgatory is perhaps best described as a lesser hell, but unlike hell where punishment is eternal in the afterlife, purgatory was a temporary state.  It is defined as “a state or place in which the souls of those who have died in a state of grace are believed to undergo a limited amount of suffering to expiate their venial sins” (21).  The notion of limited suffering in purgatory for unrepentant sins was all part of the Christian vision in the late medieval period, leading some contemporary visionaries and mystics to claim seeing “souls in purgatory crying out for help” (22).  Whilst this vision of doom and damnation weighed heavily on the living, it was widely believed that the years in purgatory could be reduced by alms giving, fasting and prayer.

The idea that praying and repenting in this life to reduce one’s suffering in the afterlife developed into some of the most complex expressions.  It was believed that you could not only reduce your own time in purgatory, but also that of a deceased relative or friend. Such was the fear of purgatory and even more so, that of eternal hell, it was “common to make provisions while living or in a written will to obtain intercessory prayers, especially masses for oneself and specific relatives” (23). The late medieval obsession with sin, death, judgement and concern for the afterlife, was undoubtedly a prominent and defining feature of the period and society’s attitudes towards death.  When John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster died in 1399, he stipulated in his Will that “around his hearse there should be ten great candles for the ten commandments that he had broken, seven for the seven works of mercy which he had been negligent, seven for the seven deadly sins and five for the five wounds of Christ” (24).  The diversity of expressions all stemmed from the knowledge of four ‘Last Things’ – Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven, best summarised by E Duffy:

“The four Last Things formed the essential focus of medieval reflection on mortality, coupling anxiety over brevity and uncertainty of life to the practical need for good works, to ensure in blissful hereafter” (25).

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