Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: A Page From the Ars Moriendi
The Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying Well) was one of the first runaway successes of the fifteenth-century printing business.
An instructional manual, the Ars Moriendi was accompanied by woodcut illustrations such as this image showing Inspiration against Despair. The text and images of the Ars Moriendi focus on the last rites of a dying Christian as practiced by the medieval Church. The main theme is the conflict between virtue and vice experienced by the individual on his deathbed. Directives offered by the manual exhort the dying man to choose the virtuous path, which will lead to divine grace and salvation.
The maker of this particular woodcut is unknown, but it is based on an identical scene engraved by the early German printmaker Master E.S. (active ca. 1450–1467). This image shows the dying man surrounded by saints who received God’s mercy after living in iniquity. St. Mary Magdalene holds her balm. St. Peter is shown with the rooster that crowed when he denied Christ. Dismas, the good thief, is shown on the cross. St. Paul falls from his horse and is converted on the road to Damascus. Above the man, an angel offers these consoling words: “You should not despair, by any means.” Meanwhile, lurking below the tranquil scene of blessing and forgiveness are two demons scurrying on the floor under the bed. Even as these creatures continue their efforts to lead the dying man into temptation, one admits, “Victory is not mine.”
In an age when sudden death was always a possibility, the Ars Moriendi would have offered the living, as well as those at death’s door, some hope that salvation was available to anyone who was willing to follow its instructions and embrace the sacred rites of Christianity.
Larry Silver, Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania
“People had a very different attitude toward death before the modern era. They lived together much more than they do now, they saw death up close and there weren’t hospitals very often for the kind of isolation of people who were dying or sick. Certainly in the late Middle Ages, death was a much more gripping and visible, palpable, almost frightening presence for people. In an era that was full of plagues, that was certainly an omnipresent threat. And looking at an image of a deathbed with various figures around, as in the Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying Well), people had to stop and think about what their salvation meant and what it might mean to die very suddenly. The Art of Dying Well is really a sequence of temptations and resistances as the dying man on his bed works his way through the sins that he’s confronted and has the chance at the very end to repent. So that’s a work that isn’t meant to scare you—it’s meant to make you think, to make you reflect and look backwards on your life.”
“Block Books—Digital Material from the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress Web site. http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/rosenwald-block.html.
Cust, Lionel. The Master E. S. and the ‘Ars Moriendi’: A Chapter in the History of Engraving During the XVth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898.
De Simone, Daniel, ed. A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books. New York; Washington: G. Braziller, in association with the Library of Congress, 2004.
Reinis, Austra. Reforming the Art of Dying: The Ars Moriendi in the German Reformation (1519–1528). Aldershot, Hampshire, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.