The 31st Annual Canadian Conference of Medieval Art Historians
A New Vision of Death: Re-Evaluating Huizinga’s Views on the Late Medieval Macabre
Kralik, Christine (University of Toronto)
In The Waning of the Middle Ages, first published in the Netherlands in 1919, Johan Huizinga explored the late medieval art of France and the Netherlands and argued that the Late Middle Ages was a period of violent contrasts, decline and excess. Despite the fact that the central argument of this book has long been rejected in most academic circles, including art historical ones, this text continues to be read and respected, and has become a canonical work of literature in its own right. Certainly the scope and breadth of the book continue to impress, and the arguments that Huizinga made, as problematic as they might be, continue to draw the attention of scholars in art history, history and related fields.
In one of the chapters of the book, entitled “A Vision of Death”, Huizinga suggests that the imagery of death and decay emerged in the Late Middle Ages as an expression of excessive sensuality and deep-rooted fear of decay. Huizinga’s views have been regularly invoked, but less often critically engaged, by historians of medieval art in their efforts to explain the emergence and significance of so-called “Macabre” imagery. This paper will problematize Huizinga’s characterization of the Macabre as expressed in art as “self- seeking and earthly” and will examine how Huizinga’s perspective has been received and been influential. This paper will also critique the very idea of the Macabre, the term for which has been used uncritically by scholars in the wake of Huizinga’s study. I will show that by becoming aware of and moving away from the paradigm that associates images of death with a time of excess, we can more fruitfully examine such works on their own terms and better understand how they functioned in their original devotional contexts.
This paper is derived from/ based on a chapter from Kralik’s dissertation and deals with an examination of the medieval macabre and the late medieval art of death.
The “Macabre” was a label for all things related to death and it still carries with it a negative connotation to this date. Johan Huizinga argued that the late Middle Ages was a period of extremes, of contradictions between fantasy and reality. Death represented the fantastic in the form of the corpse coming back to life as seen in the animated corpses in Danse Macabre c. 1424. The animation of corpses in late medieval imagery demonstrates the medieval obsession with death, the decay of the human body and the futility of desire for worldly goods.
In the 1919 edition of his book, Huizinga didn’t include illustrations as it was difficult to obtain a good reproduction of art work at the time and he expected his audience to know of these works.
The legend of The Three Living and The Three Dead appears to have first emerged in late thirteenth century France. It details the story of three young men, sometimes kings, hunting in the woods when they come upon three dead, in some versions described as their forefathers while in other versions they are understood to be the future selves of the living. The young men are chastised for not saying prayers for the souls of the dead. The moral and lesson of the story is to warn the living to be mindful of the dead. The story was spread by Mendicant preachers during the later middle ages, where death served as a positive function to the devotional user. It is also seen in the Psalter of Robert de Lisle c. 1310. This story became so well known over time that images of the tale started to function independently of their poetic texts and began to regularly accompany the prayers of the Office of the Dead in Books of Hours by the late Middle Ages. One such example, described at length in this paper, is found in the Berlin Hours of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian I of ca. 1480.
The Office of the Dead: was said at Vespers, Matins and Lauds and dates back to the 9th century. In later centuries, it was added into devotional texts and worshippers were told to include it in their daily prayers. It was believed that the living could intercede on behalf of the dead, especially for those trapped in Purgatory, through prayer. The prayers were recited to avoid the Purgatorial fires and to help hasten the time spent there for those who had passed on and were languishing in Purgatory. This was established as a daily addition after the 13th century.
Devotional books also included pictures of their owners during the later Middle Ages. Books of Hours were personalised and thought to aid in the preparation of death by forcing the reader to confront it daily.