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1 Renate Eikelmann (ed.), Bayerisches Nationalmuseum: Handbuch der kunst-und kulturgeschichtlichen Sammlungen, Hirmer Verlag, München, 2000, p. 84.

2 Sophie Balace & Alexandra De Poorter (eds), Entre paradis et enfer: mourir au Moyen Âge, 600–1600, Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Historie, Brussels; Fonds Mercator, Antwerp, 2010, p. 220.

3 Andrea von Hülsen-Esch & Hiltrud Westermann- Angershausen (eds), Zum Sterben schön: Alter, Totentanz und Sterbekult von 1500 bis heute, Museum Schnütgen, Cologne; Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg, 2006, vol.2: Tödlein: cat. no. 28, p. 61 and Torre Abbey Jewel: cat. no. 31, p. 65.

4 John Hand, Joos van Cleve: The Complete Paintings, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2004, cat. nos. 75–8, pp. 92–5.

5 St Jerome, present location unknown, see Hand, cat. no. 79, fig. 99, pp. 94 and 162.


Depicting Death

Dagmar Eichberger

Dagmar Eichberger looks at the late medieval preoccupation with death in art.

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
Revelation 6:7–8

Images of death, mostly personified by a human skeleton, were omnipresent in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Visually speaking, death had become part of everyday life, a horrifying spectacle that constantly admonished the viewer not to forget that life is short and that the end is in sight. Memento moriendum esse—‘remember that you must die’—was the idea behind many of these images.


Michael Wolgemut Wilhelm Pleydenwurf Dance of Death, folio CCLXIIII recto in Hartmann Schedel, Nuremburg Chronicle: Koberger, 1493 woodcut, State Library of Victoria

In the church of Heilsbronn, for instance, a life-size representation of Death riding on a ferocious lion once formed part of a giant clock.1 Death struck each hour with a thigh bone, and at certain times of the day the skeleton opened its jaw while the lion stuck out his tongue. In church precincts representations of the Dance of Death decorated the walls of cloisters and ossuaries, and in private homes intricately carved skeletons, made from ivory or boxwood, were displayed in intimate collection cabinets. Small skulls made from ivory were used as prayer beads or as pendants that could be opened and closed,2 and gold and enamel images of Death with a scythe and jewel-like coffins were worn on a chain around the neck.3 In the sixteenth century, a half-length figure of Death even appeared on a carved and painted towel rack, an idea that has been lately adopted by a commercial outlet selling neo-Gothic merchandise. What may seem bizarre and eccentric to us was an expression of the deep fears and anxieties of the early modern period, when people were surrounded by war, violence, disaster and death. Looking at a depiction of Death encouraged meditation on death.

The most important biblical source for the visualisation of Death came from the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, in which St John describes his vision of the end of times: namely, Armageddon and the Last Judgement. The relevant passage in Revelation 6, quoted on the previous page, describes Death as seated on a pale horse, followed closely by Hell, and having the power to brutally extinguish human life. The idea of four riders rampaging across the earth and trampling desperate men and women to the ground was immortalised by the German artist Albrecht Dürer in his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from his famous set of woodcuts known as the Apocalypse. Death was also visualised carrying a variety of weapons to use against man: in the Bible, a sword; in Dürer’s woodcut, a pitchfork; in representations of Death as the grim reaper, a scythe; and in many other early modern illustrations, a bow with arrows.


After Joos van Cleve St Jerome 1530a-40s, oil on wood panel, National Gallery of Victoria.

Reflecting and meditating on death was a key subject in early modern paintings and engravings. A popular image from the workshop of Joos van Cleve shows the erudite theologian St Jerome in his study, pointing to a human skull with his left index finger. Van Cleve had borrowed this motif from a similar painting by Dürer because he recognised its strong visual impact. The tablet on the wall behind the saint carries the inscription homo bulla: ‘man is a soap bubble’. This common phrase points to the transience of human existence and reminds the viewer of the brevity of life on earth, as does the hourglass on the windowsill. The image of St Jerome in his study was often reproduced with slight variations and in different formats by van Cleve and his workshop. John Hand lists twelve copies, not including the Melbourne version.4 The open book, inkwell, pencil case, spectacles, hourglass and leather box containing a scroll appear in several versions of these paintings. St Jerome is always depicted with his head leaning on his right hand, a well-known pose signifying melancholy or meditation. In another image by van Cleve showing the penitent Jerome in his study, a Latin inscription names the sombre thoughts that haunt the saint: ‘Whether I drink, whether I eat, whether I sleep, whether I am awake, or whatever I do, always that voice seems to ring in my ears: Arise ye dead, come to judgement’.5

Reflecting upon death was part of everyday life in the pre-modern age, for death was ever-present and had to be reckoned with at any time. The skeletal figure of Death, part of a rich cultural tradition, drew on a wide range of meanings. In the later Middle Ages it developed into a powerful icon that artists such as van Eyck, Wolgemut and Reichel employed for different religious and secular purposes, an icon underpinned by graphic images of Death in St John’s apocalyptic vision.

This is an edited extract from ‘The rider of the pale horse: depicting death’ by Dagmar Eichberger, first published in The Four Horsemen: Apocalypse, Death and Disaster. An exhibition on this subject is currently showing at the National Gallery of Victoria.

© Dagmar Eichberger



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