Memento Mori: Medieval Images of Death

October 29, 2014

If you’ve ever taken a look at medieval art, or wandered around a cathedral with visible tombs and monuments, you’ve most likely noticed that there are a whole lot of spooky images appearing from about the fourteenth century on. Not surprisingly, in the years following The Black Death (c. 1346-1353 CE), which killed approximately one third of Europe’s population, there was a trend in medieval art that highlighted looking death in the face, rather than shying away from it. Many artists created images and sculptures that ask the living to “remember death” (memento mori): that it is always waiting, and that it spares no one. In honour of All Hallows’ Eve, let’s take five minutes to look at how death was expressed in art in the late Middle Ages.

1. Corpses

This is a fairly obvious one, but it’s amazing how creative people got on the corpse theme. Rather than just skeletons, you can find images of corpses in various states of decay, and some of these are very prominent, like those you find on cadaver (or transi) tombs. Cadaver tombs feature, instead of (or along with) a flattering effigy of the deceased, a decomposing corpse. You can find a good image of one of these

Burial effigy of John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel, at Arundel Castle chapel - photo by Lampman/Wikicommons

If you’ve ever taken a look at medieval art, or wandered around a cathedral with visible tombs and monuments, you’ve most likely noticed that there are a whole lot of spooky images appearing from about the fourteenth century on. Not surprisingly, in the years following The Black Death (c. 1346-1353 CE), which killed approximately one third of Europe’s population, there was a trend in medieval art that highlighted looking death in the face, rather than shying away from it. Many artists created images and sculptures that ask the living to “remember death” (memento mori): that it is always waiting, and that it spares no one. In honour of All Hallows’ Eve, let’s take five minutes to look at how death was expressed in art in the late Middle Ages.

2. Frogs, Toads, Worms, and Snakes

As if it weren’t enough to create an image of a corpse to make people consider their own mortality, medieval people also added the creatures that feast on corpses – or so they thought. If an artist wanted to be particularly gruesome, he would add toads, frogs, worms or snakes. Although these creatures (with the exception of worms) aren’t usually found feeding on corpses in nature, they were associated with evil (think: Garden of Eden) and death at the time. You can find images of feasting creatures on the effigy of Francois I de la Serra, and in this image from the British Library.

Yates Thompson 31 f. 170v The Torments of Hell

3. Protesting Mortals

Naturally, even though medieval people were encouraged to contemplate death, that didn’t mean they actually welcomed it. Memento mori images frequently feature death or his minions coming for an unwilling victim. Often, the mortal is showing his or her reluctance through body language, as in this picture, but sometimes, there are words, too.

medieval images of death

In this British Library image, death is actually impaling an understandably distressed person.

medieval deathbed

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