Contrasting Ideas concerning Death within Illuminated Manuscripts

     In two illustrated manuscripts, Plate 71, and Plate 74, from the British Library and the Bodleian Library, respectively, we see a lot of symbolism regarding death. Plate 71’s prominent picture is of Death, represented as a skeleton with a scythe, stands triumphantly in a beautifully constructed palace.

     In contrast, Plate 74 contains a scene depicting a burial, full of somber looking people dressed in black, with two Priests in the center. The Marginalia in 74 works against the predominant vibe of 71, in that 74’s Marginalia is just eight skulls, with one skull turned at a grotesque angle, and some without jaws. Plate 71’s Marginalia also contains skulls, but they are interwoven with serpents, and although the imagery is still deathlike, it does not feel as somber.

     An interesting question, or idea to look at, is what did these two specific manuscripts believe about death, and how did their views, positive (or accepting) or Negative, inform and affect their interpretation of life and death within the manuscript? While both Plates look to discuss death, they do so in different ways, and incorporate skulls as the pivotal symbol that everyone at this time period could easily understand as Death. What I find most interesting is the triumphal look of Death in 71. Even though Death may have triumphed over the world, or an empire, it seems like 71 is making the case that Death is a necessity, and thus must be respected.

One Reply to “Contrasting Ideas concerning Death within Illuminated Manuscripts”

  1. I noticed that too, Will!

    I think that people have had mixed feelings about death and acceptance as long as there have been people, and these illustrations reflect that. There’s the philosophy of death (more universal during medieval times than now) that dying is a kind of coming home to God, or just a continuation of our souls. But at the same time as this positive view on the inevitability of death, we have the other angle taken by the church that death is judgement, and the God of medieval Europe was usually thought of as a vengeful one.

    That’s already mixed enough, but even outside of our intellectual fears about death are our instinctual ones. We fear little more than death, and I think the images in Plate 74 remind us why: the idea that there may be nothing left of us. That’s what makes it unusual. The other artists, whether their depiction was one of acceptance or sorrow, didn’t emphasize this fear, whether because they were less cynical or because they were more focused on the teaching of the Church. It’s interesting how much the implications can vary between portrayals on the same subject (death) in the same context (a book of hours).

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