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Dealing with Death

One of the greatest virtues of art is that it chronicles life. It may sound trite, but the saying, "Art is who we are," entails a history of man perhaps more accurate than that which has been written. As we saw in the work of the Limbourg brothers, pictures are often less ambiguous than words, and words are much more easily changed than the great paintings that hang on museum walls. But if art is about life, then we must also admit that it is also about death as well. It's one of the most consistent themes in painting especially. At least until this century when death has been relegated to hospitals and funeral parlours, it was an almost daily occurrence which people of all ages were intimately familiar. With today's ever-increasing average life span, for the most part, only old people die and likewise, art today ignores death because it seems so rare. But in the mid-fourteenth century, art and life were preoccupied by two things, death and religion.

Imagine a period of time covering about five years (1347-51) when if you lived in Europe, you, or one out of every three people you knew would die. Entire villages died. It was widely believed to be a judgement from God. But it was plague! Bubonic or pneumonic plague, thought to be spread by cats, which were killed off by the thousands, thereby improving conditions for the primary culprits which were rats. It was a quick but painful death and it cut across all levels of Gothic society indiscriminately. Not surprisingly, as a refuge, people very quickly became very religious. This is evident in the explosion of religious art, and especially that branch of art dealing with religion and death.

Known only as the Master of the Rohan Hours, his work is graphic and horrifying. He depicts a pale, rotting, dying corpse breathing his last word amongst the skulls and bones of his dead friends and relatives, "Into Thy hands I commend my spirit; thou has redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth." Above him, a white-haired God bearing a sword in his arms delivers his judgement, "For your sins you shall do penance. On Judgement day you shall be with Me." Nearby, the angel St. Michael battles a winged devil for the man's soul. The entire book of hours is like that. If you contrast that with the daily celebrations of life depicted in the Limbourg brothers' efforts for the Duc de Berry's Book of Hours, you realise it's hard to overstate the impact death and the plague had upon art and life during this terrible period.

contributed by Lane, Jim

29 November 1998

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Death in Art
The Stages of Life
A Burial at Ornans
Time Flies
Apocalypse in Art
Death in the Sick-Room (Edvard Munch)
Home from the Sea (Arthur Hughes)
Monument to Michelangelo (Giorgio Vasari)
Severed Heads (Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault)
The Dead Mother (Edvard Munch)
The Magpie on the Gallows (Pieter Bruegel (the Elder))
Tomb of Julius II (Michelangelo de Buonarotti)


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