Historically, death and life have always been mysterious aspects to human and that have in most occasions drawn controversy and superstition. The basis of religion has been postulated as the need for human beings to find an explanation of death and life. The belief in a much higher authority in control of people’s destinies has been materialistic in the understanding and even appreciation of death. Other aspects that have brought devastation and trauma to humanity such as natural disasters and plagues have always so much pain that the only source of consolation has been the existence of life after death. Other social aspects such as poverty have also brought pain and suffering and the hope of having life after death has always been a source of motivation to continue living. Art and literature have been two important aspects historically to study the perception of human beings to things that cause human suffering and that cannot be easily explained. Looking at the medieval art it is possible to outline how the deaths caused by the black plague affected people as depicted in the various pieces of art. The art during the fourteen century was greatly influenced by a plagued that swept nearly half of Europe’s population affected Europe not only medically but also psychological effects (Mormando 67). The psychological and social implications of the Black Death were depicted in various forms of art during the 14 century and analysis of the art is significant in understanding the perceptions concerning life.
Dance of Death
The dance of death was a series of artistic representations of the perception of people with regard to the Black Death. The perception of death during this period was that God was angry with the people and as a result he was punishing people using the plague. In the dance of death the painting depicts death in a personified perspective in terms of three skeletons. The skeletons dance and invite people from various classes during the time to join in the dance. The personification of death in the paintings is particularly important in letting people view death against life. The Black Death in Europe was a mysterious occurrence and the severity of the deaths caused by the plague prompted people either to change their perspectives concerning death and religion or begin looking at death more seriously (Aiken 6). The fact that death was personified and that it calls people to join it in dance was an indication that people were becoming more aware of death and the consequently the possibility of an afterlife. The dance of death surprisingly does not offer the kind of relief that the thought of afterlife offered. Since death during this period was considered to be a punishment from God the thought of afterlife was not pleasant due to the Christianity belief of both hell and heaven. Heaven was only for the persons who were not sinners while sinners were condemned to eternal hell. The fact that death was depicted using skeleton which was usually associated with evil implies that people were of the idea that people who died from the plague would go to hell. Furthermore, the symptoms of the Black Death were not very pleasant and the general assumption was that the victims might have committed sin. Looking at other aspects that happened during this time such as the rise of the groups such as the flagellates who would whip themselves publicly to seek atonement of sin is one indication that the thought of a pleasant afterlife was little. The other parties in the painting of the Dance of Death show that death was considered a common aspect that everybody had to experience. The painting shows, the pope, emperor, bishop, a king, a young boy and a laborer dancing together with death. Although, the panting in some instances has been postulated to have some comical aspect it still depicts the kind of perception the Black Death had placed on Europe. There was also the realization that the Catholic Church lost much faith due to its inability to provide protection and spiritual nourishment to the disillusioned population. Just as outlined in the introduction man has always attempted to explain death and afterlife using religious principles. In instances where death was preceded by painful experience the only source of consolation was the idea of afterlife. However, with the assumptions during the time that the Black Death was a punishment from God as a result of sins committed few people were able to continue with the faith they had in the Church that failed to stop such an occurrence or even offer solution.
During the 14th century in the 150 year period when the Black Death nearly killed a half of Europe’s population, death became a particularly outstanding aspect in most of the artistic works. In addition, to the depiction of death there was also the realization that afterlife became an important constituent of the paintings. (Ortiz 186) The paintings usually involved the interpretation of biblical stories in a way that gave the impression that there was usually a fight between good and evil. Good was supported by God who gave the promise of an eternal life while evil was promoted by Satan who was condemned to hell and enticed people to sin so that they can join him in eternal darkness. An example of a piece of art that outlined the apparent tussle between good and evil is drawing from “Scripture Thesaurus” that was printed in 1510 showed Angels defending the fortress of heaven against demons. The fact that Angels in the drawing have been given a higher position and have been depicted as relatively good looking, shows that people associated eternal life with heaven. Demons on the other hand are depicted as ugly with horns and fighting from a lower ground which means that bad things and eternal suffering was associated with sin. Although the same notion was held by most people before the Black Death, it became more apparent and emphasized during this period. People were dying at a very alarming rate in most cities and the symptoms included a lot of suffering from the patients. The only explanation was that people had been leading sinful lives and as a result they were dying. The notion that the death was caused by sin gave little hope to the victims knowing that after dying they would go to hell (Medieval Macabre)
The kind of afterlife that one would lead after their death became particularly associated with the kind of life one lead during their lifetime. This postulation is clearly depicted in the drawing from “Ritter Von Turn” which shows how women in a church are being enticed to gossip by demons. The primary intention of the demons is to entice the women to sin so that they may be condemned to eternal fire in hell. Therefore, the deeds of individuals in their life time greatly determine their afterlife destination and it is for this reason that the women are being tempted by demons. The fact that demons are inside the church shows that the church could not provide enough protection for people. This can probably explain the reduced faith in the Catholic Church. The increased popularity of the flagellates is due to the fact that they offered a more practical option to the explanation of death. The flagellates would encourage their supporters to whip themselves as a way of repenting their sins. Although their popularity ended after a very short time after the realization that the plague also affected the members, the effect they have indicated that there were two aspects of afterlife during the 14th century. There were two aspects and this involved eternal life and eternal suffering. These two aspects depended on whether one did good or bad and during Black Death the faith in the main religious group diminished. A drawing by an anonymous person that depicted the pope as Satan is perhaps the best evidence for the reduced faith in the Church (Medieval Macabre).
A drawing during the 14th century from “Ritter Von Turn” called the “Demon of vanity also shows that people had come to believe that the kind of materials life and possessions that were common with man was not important in the afterlife. The drawing depicts a woman holding her head out of regret and frustration while there is a demon who seems to be mocking her. There was an awakening of the meaning of death and after life brought about by the devastating effects of the Black Death. The economic situation in Europe changed as a result of the plague because most countries prevented the importation of food from the most affected areas. The implication is that the laws of supply and demand ceased to control economy. In addition, due to the high number of people that had died most farms experienced reduced labor shortage. Therefore farm owners increased the wages of laborers. All these situations created the perception that not even material wealth could prevent people from death and the kind of afterlife that they were destined for. The vanity of material things could have been the essence of the drawing of the demon of vanity that drove people away from God. (Medieval Macabre)
The perception of afterlife and death during the 14the century was greatly influenced by the Black Death. During this period as it is with most ages art occupies an important tool for communication especially for the things that were not very pleasant to talk about such as death. Art therefore offered a safe and non offensive option of reflecting the perceptions during the 150 years of Black Death. The Dance of Death offers a depiction though with slight humor of the various aspects of death which is the major avenue towards afterlife. Death has been depicted as an inevitable aspect and considering the events accompanying, there must have been some consideration of afterlife. The conclusions that were made during this period in the psyche of people was that afterlife had two aspects; afterlife would either be characterized by eternal life in heaven or eternal burning in hell. The devastating symptoms of the plague only implied that it would lead one to eternal burning and it is for this reason that the general perception was that the plague was brought upon human beings because of their sinful nature. Drawings depicting heaven, demons and Satan began emerging. Satan and demons were considered as being the deceitful beings that caused man to sin and therefore led them to eternal burning. God and Angels were on the other hand considered as promoting good and would therefore lead persons to heaven. The tussle between good and bad and human beings being in the middle was greatly emphasized. The events even influenced people to lose faith in the Catholic Church as depicted for instance by the drawing that depicted the pope as Satan. Another evidence for the loss of influence of the Catholic Church was the rise in the group the flagellates.