Turning Toward Death: The Medievals’ Terrestrial Treatment of Death in Art During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
Academia.edu: Master’s Thesis (2012)
Throughout the Middle Ages, religious iconography was a main theme of art and the Church heavily patronized works that embodied virtuous ideals. However, art can also represent pain and trauma acting as an outlet for the artist. Virtuous‐themed art still remained an artistic focus during the fourteenth and fifteenth century; however, a noticeable shift can be seen toward vulgar images of the afterlife laced with the realistic transformation of the body after death. Though the concepts of memento mori and ars moriendi existed prior to the fourteenth century, these genres became popularized due to the overabundance of death that suffocated Europe as a whole. This art has been described by many historians and art historians as memento mori, but the subject matter is much more practical than an obsession with the philosophical and transcendental aspects of dying. I argue that this art should be termed as terrestrial, as it specifically focuses on the pragmatic decaying of a corpse and what became of a body once it was of the earth.
As the renaissance is known for the anatomy of a human body, I will argue that late fourteenth and fifteenth century art focused on the anatomy of a corpse. The earthly processes of death and decay replaced the previous ‘godly’ scenes of Jesus and the apostles. There are two outcomes of this art shift that will be discussed. First, as the medievals began to question the Church’s abilities throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Church had to find a new art form that would inspire devotion. Instead of shunning terrestrial art as vulgar or decrepit, the Church capitalized on this art shift by charging individuals inflated fees for cadaver tombs. This terrestrial art helped bring the weaning ‘flock’ back to the Church as it demonstrated that they understood that death was smothering medieval Europe. However, I believe that the Church used this new genre as a tool indicating that as the body decays, nothing remains; because of this, one must turn to God for salvation. Though this genre of art did not focus on the tranquil ascent of a martyred saint to the heavens, this vulgar art still remained a tool for the Church to control its members’ devotion.