Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well

The J. Paul Getty Museum

Images of Death in the Middle Ages

This presentation complements Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages, an exhibition organized by the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (May 29–August 12, 2012).

During the medieval period, hope mingled with fear concerning death and the afterlife, providing stirring subjects for manuscript illumination. Vague accounts in early Christian writings drove artists to fill in the gaps with innovative visions of heaven and hell—equally delightful and disturbing—that fueled the imagination of viewers. In art and literature, the medieval mind traveled the regions of the netherworld, exploring and mapping what awaited humankind beyond this earthly existence. Depictions of souls in paradise, the rewards of the blessed, and God’s mercy reassured Christian audiences, while morbid and sometimes horrific illustrations of funerals, demons, and the punishment of the wicked prompted the pious to repent for their sins. At the core of visual devotion stood images of the crucified Christ, promising resurrection and eternal salvation.
The Art of Death
The morbid imagery found in late medieval prayer books sheds light on the intense preoccupation with matters of death during the period. Lavish depictions of deathbed scenes, funeral rites, and the uncertain fate of departed souls focused attention on the viewer’s own mortality and the transience of material wealth. Prayer cycles recorded in such manuscripts include the Office of the Dead, recited to ensure repose for the deceased and shorten their time in purgatory. Accompanying illustrations feature tortured souls threatened by devilish creatures while waiting for spiritual help from the living. The intimate scale of prayer books was appropriate, encouraging devout Christians to prepare themselves inwardly and contemplate death in solitude.

Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death
Paris, about 1500
Artist: Master of the Chronique scandaleuse
Poncher Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. 109, fol. 156

Denise Poncher, the young woman who owned this manuscript, is depicted kneeling with her prayer book before Death, a terrifying skeleton covered in rotting flesh and holding numerous sickles. The jarring contrast between the woman’s innocent loveliness and the horrific specter looming above her is heightened by the presence of three victims whom Death has already taken, lying on the ground with bloody wounds. Perhaps the fourth scythe Death carries is reserved for Denise. This image may suggest that diligent praying from her book will protect her from the violent fate suffered by the others, or it may have been intended to remind her that, despite her youth and beauty, she was nonetheless mortal as well.

The Three Living and the Three Dead
Bruges, possibly about 1480-85
Master of the Dresden Prayer Book or Workshop
Crohin-La Fontaine Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. 23, fol. 146v

Expressions of stark terror appear on the faces of the noble riders in this image, as three corpses risen from the dead suddenly block their path. The scene is based on a famous medieval poem in which the three dead are described as the noblemen’s forefathers, who criticize their descendants for being too materialistic and pleasure-loving. In the border, disguised among golden leaves and beautiful flowers, a skull stares out at the viewer as a reminder that death is hidden in all worldly delights. Ironically, this exquisite prayer book itself was an object of great value and evidence of a love for transient treasures.

A Burial
Paris, about 1420
Artist: Spitz Master
Book of hours (text in Latin)
Ms. 57, fol. 194

The main image and marginal scenes on this page juxtapose the earthly and spiritual dimensions of a man’s death. In the center, a burial takes place; the open doorway of a church offers a glimpse of a funeral mass being held inside. Whereas this image focuses on the last rites granted to the physical remains of the deceased, the margins show the man’s spiritual journey from his body.

At bottom left, an angel and a demon wait for him to expire on his deathbed, while a woman emerging from a flower prays for him.

In the top right corner, an angel successfully fights off a demon with a sword to lift the man’s soul toward heaven and eternal salvation.

Mass for the Dead
England or France, about 1430-40
Artist: Master of Sir John Fastolf
Book of hours (text in Latin)
Ms. 5, fol. 170v

A priest celebrates the Mass for the Dead, while mourners dressed in black attend the service. They surround a coffin, which is placed inside a structure bearing candles and crosses. This scene of a traditional medieval funeral ceremony faces the text for the Office of the Dead, a prayer cycle recited to ensure repose for the deceased. Spiritual support offered by the living was thought to ease the temporary sufferings endured by souls in purgatory.

Initial D: An Angel and a Devil Disputing over a Soul
England or France, about 1430-40
Artist: Master of Sir John Fastolf
Book of hours (text in Latin)
Ms. 5, fol. 171

Within the initial D on the facing page of the celebration of the Mass for the Dead, an angel and a devil fight over a dead man’s soul, reminding the reader that a single prayer could tip the scales.

Westminster Abbey: Tomb of Henry III
Artist: Frederick H. Evans
British, 1853-1943
Platinum print

In the Middle Ages, elaborate funerary sculpture not only commemorated the deceased but also demonstrated their power and status. King Henry III (died 1272) was the first English ruler to choose Westminster Abbey in London as a fitting setting for a royal burial. Here, captured in a glowing light, Henry’s tomb possesses a mystical quality that is typical of photographs by Frederick H. Evans. Like many of his contemporaries, Evans was fascinated by medieval churches and tombs, as these monuments captured the emotional connection with religion that characterized his own period.

The Descent into Hell
Hell. Where is it? What does it look like? What horrors await the sinners there? In widely read stories such as The Visions of the Knight Tondal and The Divine Comedy, medieval audiences followed the main characters into the depths of the underworld, closely observing the infernal spectacle. These vivid accounts were frequently illustrated with terrifying images that exceeded even the most gruesome textual descriptions. Dante’s references to the location, shape, and structure of hell inspired later scholars to translate his text into detailed maps. The dialogue between the artistic imagination and a burgeoning scientific interest in the afterlife produced an idea of hell as a real, physical place infused with wild fantasies.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels
Probably Nantes, about 1440-50
Artist: Unknown
Author: Saint Augustine
The City of God (text in French)
Ms. Ludwig XI 10, fol. 18v

A monstrous mouth of hell opens its jaws to swallow Lucifer and the dissenting angels who, according to Christian writings, rebelled against God. As they descend from heaven, their beautiful faces transform into horrifying masks, and their golden feathers turn into bat-like wings—they become demons. This image introduces the twelfth book of Saint Augustine’s City of God, originally written in the early 400s. The text discusses the existence of evil, attributing it to Lucifer’s uprising and consequent fall. Based on a passage in the Bible, early church fathers established the idea of hell as a place created expressly for Lucifer and his demon angels.

Initial D: The Harrowing of Hell
Probably Bruges, mid-1200s
Artist: Unknown
Psalter (text in Latin)
Ms. 14, fol. 110

The fire-spitting jaws of hell gape wide following the curve of the initial letter D. Although the scene within the initial is not mentioned in the Bible, early writings describe Christ descending into hell after his crucifixion to release the souls of the just from captivity. Here, symbolizing victory over death and evil, Christ thrusts the devil to the ground with his cross-mounted staff; he takes a soul—possibly Adam—by the hand, while others eagerly follow. With his venture into the underworld, Christ joined a distinguished company of heroic figures from Greek mythology such as Orpheus, Aeneas, and Herakles, who had completed similar harrowing journeys.

The Beast Acheron
Ghent and Valenciennes, 1475
Artist: Simon Marmion
The Visions of the Knight Tondal (text in French)
Ms. 30, fol. 17

Originally written in the 1100s, The Visions of the Knight Tondal is the story of a wayward Irish knight whose dreamlike journey through hell and heaven teaches him the value of penitence. In the first part, a guardian angel introduces Tondal to the horrific punishments inflicted on sinful souls. Here Tondal witnesses the greedy being devoured by the infernal monster Acheron. Dramatically lit, the bodily shapes of the damned dissolve into the hellish red of the beastly abyss. Impaled on the monster’s teeth are two demons holding its jaws open, while devilish creatures lurk in the dark nearby, waiting to hook Tondal into Acheron’s gaping maw.

Damnation and Salvation
A divine moral order shaped the medieval understanding of time as a linear narrative from the Creation to the Last Judgment. In the face of God’s final ruling over each soul, Christ’s death on the cross to redeem the sins of mankind offered hope. In book illumination, panel painting, stained glass, and sculpture, artists turned Christian beliefs into arresting images of damnation and salvation intended to unsettle and motivate their audiences. Depictions of heaven and hell, often juxtaposed in a single scene, dramatically visualized the eternal delights and horrors waiting in the next life.

The Fourth Horseman
Probably London, about 1255-60
Artist: Unknown
Getty Apocalypse (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig III 1, fol. 7v

In the biblical account of the end of the world, Saint John recorded the many terrible events that he witnessed in visions leading to the Last Judgment. The scene at left illustrates a passage from the Apocalypse: “I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades [hell] followed him.” Within the mouth of hell are damned souls of every social status, including a king, a monk, and a bishop, indicating that anyone could wind up there.

The Souls of the Dead Receiving White Robes
Probably London, about 1255-60
Artist: Unknown
Getty Apocalypse (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig III 1, fol. 8

The facing page of the passage from the Apocalypse shows the rewards for Christian martyrs who died for their faith. John, in his red and blue robes, looks on as the blessed souls emerge from an altar to receive white garments that will ultimately gain them entry into heaven.

The Crucifixion
Before 1450
Artist: Dreux Budé Master, possibly André d'Ypres
French, active by 1425/26, died 1450
Oil on panel

Set in a crowded and colorful landscape, the central figure of Christ on the cross divides two groups of people—his sorrowful followers on the left, and his evil prosecutors and executioners on the right. The scene is framed by the crucified figures of the repentant thief and the remorseless thief, prototypes of the saved and the damned. At upper right, sinners are packed tightly into a boiling cauldron; their jailer is a grotesquely fanciful double-mouthed demon. Below, Christ thrusts the devil down while retrieving Adam and Eve from hell.

The Feast of Dives
Bruges and Ghent, about 1510-20
Artist: Master of James IV of Scotland
Spinola Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 21v

Illustrating a New Testament parable, the beggar Lazarus approaches the house of a rich man, Dives, and asks for leftover morsels from the sumptuous meal being served inside. Although the portly Dives clearly has enough, he refuses the poor man’s request and unleashes his dogs on him.

The Soul of Lazarus Being Carried to Abraham
Bruges and Ghent, about 1510-20
Artist: Master of James IV of Scotland
Spinola Hours (text in Latin)
Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 21v

After Lazarus dies, his soul is received by the patriarch Abraham in heaven at right, while the soul of Dives is tortured by horrific demons in the flames of hell below. Demonstrating the artist’s creative imagination, one of the devilish creatures carries a gun and shoots at Dives. Such dramatic illustrations reminded the manuscript’s wealthy owner of the moral obligation to do charitable works and give to the needy.

The Resurrected Christ Blessing
England, possibly Norfolk, about 1450-70
Artist: Unknown
Clear glass, oxide paint, and silver stain

Delicately painted on glass, the resurrected Christ appears calm and merciful, holding up his right hand in a gesture of blessing. The wound on his hand and the burial shroud wrapped around him are evidence of his death on the cross. It is likely that this panel was originally part of a larger composition showing Christ rising from the tomb. Marking his triumph over death, Christ’s resurrection provided hope of salvation for medieval Christians.

The Last Judgment
Hagenau, 1469
Artist: Follower of Hans Schilling
Author: Rudolf von Ems
Barlaam and Josaphat (text in German)
Ms. Ludwig XV 9, fol. 93

The German caption at the top of this image reads, “The Last Judgment when God rules over the living and the dead.” Christ is shown enthroned on a rainbow, flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John. The lily and the sword emanating from Christ’s head symbolize his mercy and justice. At bottom left, those intended for eternal salvation are separated from those destined to suffer damnation. Saint Peter uses a key to open the gates of heaven (in the form of a church) for the worthy—among them a pope, a monk, and a bishop. The naked sinners at right are seized by vicious demons and pulled into the mouth of hell.

Bourges Cathedral: Judgment Panel, West Front
Artist: Frederick H. Evans
British, 1853-1943
Platinum print

Frederick H. Evans’s photographs of medieval cathedrals not only document the architectural sites but also capture their profound spirituality. In the center of this image of the Last Judgment relief at Bourges Cathedral in France, the archangel Michael holds his scales, weighing each person’s sins to send them either to heaven, at left, or to the densely populated hell at right. With the forbidding, monumental figure of Christ placed at the top along the central axis, Evans reinforces the medieval notion of Christ as feared judge that inspired a revived anxiety in Victorian England.

This presentation complements Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages, an exhibition organized by the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (May 29–August 12, 2012).

Credits: Story

This presentation complements "Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages," an exhibition organized by the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (May 29–August 12, 2012). The exhibition is curated by Martin Schwarz, scholar and former graduate intern in the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

© 2015 J. Paul Getty Trust

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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