Ingmar Bergman’s Appropriations of the Images of Death in The Seventh Seal
Wang, Denise Ming-yueh
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 17 No. 1 (2009)
Death anxiety is central to the works of Ingmar Bergman, in particular The Seventh Seal. The Seventh Seal is about mortality, playing gingerly with the medieval images of death, namely the skull, the face of Christ, the procession of flagellations, the figure of Death, and the danse macabre. Yet, the Bergman scholarship in the past decades does not seem to take the film’s medieval tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying well, very seriously, if it is aware of it at all. Explained away perhaps as a universal concern of death or a manifestation of a pre-modern religiosity, the film can be interpreted as doomsday metaphor and therefore be easily dismissed. This paper explores the film’s underlying question not only of the nature of death, but of the nature of life in realistic relationship to death in light of the medieval art of dying well. In a sense, the film serves as modern memento mori, a reminder of death and our mortality, which through regular contemplation of the transience of human existence should ideally lead us to prepare ourselves properly to meet death. Such an enquiry into the medieval tradition of ars moriendi and memento mori strives to open a new way to appraise the images of death that Bergman appropriates in his best-known medieval film.