Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Medieval grizzliness

At the weekend I visited a local museum of medieval art. I was most taken by the deathly pieces you see here. I have chosen to show them in order of 'deadness', from just killed, to several days dead, to decomposing with worms. Which suggests that either I have have a rather grizzly outlook, or that the majority of the art on show was morbid. It's both really.
Beheading of John the Baptist
First up is this wooden relief showing the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. It is dated to the 16th Century and originates from southern Germany. It shows the point at which the dancer, Salome, is presented with John's head on a silver platter. John had been held as a prisoner by King Herod. Salome attended a party at the royal palace and danced for the king. The story goes that Herod was so entranced by the dance that he granted Salome a wish. On the advice of her mother, Salome requested John's execution.

Here the story is represented in a very matter of fact way. See the very clean wound. No evidence of any severed veins of arteries there.

PietaNext is this piece dating from around 1460, which was carved in the Netherlands. It is a type of art known as a 'Pietà' (Italian for pity) - a representation of the moment Christ is brought down from the cross and is mourned by Mary.

It is quite rich in colour, with strong blues and reds. Reds are used to show Christ's wounded hands and body. Seven figures circle the central figure of Christ and all the action takes place in a very compact space.

Finally, here is a miniature sculpture from Aachen dating to around 1520. This sculpture is of a type known as 'Memento mori' (Latin for 'remember you will die'). Typical memento mori pieces include evidence of death - whether that be a painting showing a skull, or something more gruesome, like this 3-D rotting cadaver. The point is to remind the viewer that, whatever status they hold in life, everyone dies in the end. Such pieces were extremely popular in the middle ages, as death became more common due to plague, pestilence and warfare. Memento mori

This particular sculpture shows a corpse in a beautiful chequered casket. It is made from ivory. The corpse is feeding a whole host of wildlife including worms, lizards and possibly rats (it's a bit hard to make out).

Now, I have to confess to a special interest in this type of art, having done my degree dissertation on medieval tombs depicting decomposing cadavers. I really got into it. (As you can probably imagine.)

All the pieces are from Museum Schnütgen.

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