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Art Through Time: A Global View

Death Compare: How Has Art Been Used As a Guide to Death and Dying?

Kha and His Wife Meryt Before Osiris (detail) from the Book of the Dead

Kha and His Wife Meryt Before Osiris (detail) from the Book of the Dead
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Egypt
Region: Africa
Date New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1567 BCE–320 BCE
Period: 3000 BCE – 500 BCE
Material Pigment on papyrus
Medium: Painting
Location Egyptian Museum, Turin, Italy
Credit © Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS, The Picture Desk Limited

A page from the Ars Moriendi

A page from the Ars Moriendi
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, Germany
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1466
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Woodcut
Medium: Prints, Drawings, and Photography
Dimensions: H: approx. 11 in. (28.7 cm.)
Location: Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress

How has art been used as a guide to death and dying?

Both the Book of the Dead and the Ars Moriendi functioned to a degree as instructional manuals meant to ensure eternal life in the Underworld and in Heaven, respectively. These texts used illustrations both to clarify the steps one must take to achieve this goal and to help the individual visualize carrying out those steps. Like many works dealing with death and dying, both were deeply rooted in the religious practices, spiritual beliefs, and cosmologies of the cultures that produced them.

Questions to Consider

  • One of these illustrations comes from a book that was written for the benefit of the deceased. The other was intended to be read by the living in preparation for death. What kinds of instruction do these images provide their intended audiences? How do these instructions fit into the respective belief systems of those audiences?
  • The Book of the Dead was a collection of traditional texts, but each scroll was individualized based on the identity of the deceased. In contrast, the Ars Moriendi was a printed book reproduced in mass quantity for a general audience. How do you think these circumstances affected the images included in each work? Keeping that in mind, do you think that these illustrations would have been equally effective in fulfilling their intended functions?
  • Why do you think that each of these texts would have been accompanied by images? What might the images have been able to do that the text could not do alone? Are the images able to communicate their messages without the text?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


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