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Gravestone Symbolism

The Origins of the Iconography of Death in Europe


Following the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, in which between a third and a half of Europe’s population died, there emerged a growing obsession with death, which was reflected in the art and literature of the period, and gave rise to such stories as the Dance of Death and The Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead.  Although in some ways similar there is a difference in emphasis between the Dance and the Legend. In the former the skeleton is meant to personify death itself, whereas in the latter the skeletons or corpses represents the actual bodies of the deceased who have risen from the grave to warn those who are living that death awaits them also.


As well as carvings and paintings, the Legend manifested itself, in the later middle ages, in tomb sculpture in the form of cadaver monuments. These were a variation on the effigal tombs of the same period, for rather than showing the deceased recumbent though represented as in the prime of life, the cadaver portrayed the dead as rotting corpses, covered in worms and frogs etc. The inspiration for this may have come from the Apocrypha and the 11th verse of Ecclesiasticus chapter 10, which states, ‘For when a man is dead he shall inherit creeping things, beasts and worms.’ The earliest cadaver monument is reckoned to be that to Francis de la Salla, died 1362, whose tomb in La Sarraz, Switzerland, features his decaying body covered in worms and toads.


The Dance of Death manifested itself in the form of artwork on church walls or the enclosing walls of graveyards as at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris, which dated to 1425 is probably the earliest version.  From these murals many of the symbols later to be found on Ulster memorials can be identified.  Woodcuts of the Dance were also made in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and one set of these, that by Hans Holbein the younger from c.1425 can be used to illustrate the symbols used in the Dance.


His woodcut of the ‘Priest’ shows Death, represented throughout as a skeleton, leading a priest through the streets.  In his right hand Death carries a lantern while his left hand rings a bell.  The woodcut of the ‘Astrologer’ shows the astrologer at work at his table while Death mockingly holds out to him a skull.  His woodcuts show most of the symbols of death found on the seventeenth-century gravestones in Ulster with the exclusion of the coffin and spade which are found on other engravings of the ‘Dance.’

The Priest
spacerThe Astrologer

In the later middle ages little printed books, known as artes moriendi- ‘arts of dying’ - began to circulate in Europe among a wide ranging public.  Their purpose was to prepare people for death, and these, together with other printed works which touched on death, such as the aforesaid woodcuts, would have spread the iconography of death across Europe.  Books on architecture, such as de Keyser’s Architectura Moderna of 1631, were also in circulation, and included engravings of funerary monuments displaying the iconography of death.


Developments in anatomy from the late sixteenth century onwards also encouraged the use of the skeleton on monumental sculpture so that once it had emerged from scientific illustrations the skeleton enjoyed an incredible popularity in baroque iconography, much more so than the cadaver.  The Counter-Reformation has also been seen as deprecating the triumphal tombs of the Renaissance and encouraging the use of mortality symbols on sepulchral monuments, with the skull on these memorials representing piety.


In trying to find the more immediate origins of the mortality symbols on gravestones in Ulster a number of avenues can be explored.  Firstly, monuments and gravestones in the rest of Ireland will be examined while, secondly, the same will be done with regard to memorials from Britain.

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