Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Three Living and the Three Dead

Understanding medieval art and architecture is not easy. The terms of reference - the visual shorthand - used by medieval culture are no longer ours. The Reformation made big changes in Protestant countries, but even Catholic iconography has changed. Many of the symbols well known in the Middle Ages have been forgotten. So to interpret what you see in medieval art, sometimes it's necessary to study the symbols before looking at the art.

The Three Living and the Three Dead is a narrative, found in a 15th century English manuscript as 'the three dead kings', but going back to the thirteenth century. Three kings go hunting (hunting is always seen as a sign of worldliness, if not of actual sin). In the depths of the forest, they meet three walking corpses, who turn out to be their ancestors, and advise them to mend their ways and turn to God.

The corpses say: "As you are even so was I, and as I am so shall you be." They warn the kings of their mortality; they are a memento mori write large. (That's something that particularly resonates in 15th century culture, with its concentration on mortality; this is the date at which we find the early cadaver tombs - tombs with an effigy of the living person on top, and a corpse shown below - and at which memorial brasses often show the deceased in his shroud.)

You don't often see this legend represented in sculpture, but it's a common theme of wall paintings. For instance the Camposanto in Pisa includes this story - with one of the living holding his nose at the stench of the rotting corpses - within the Judgement mural. Several Norfolk churches also apparently have instances of this theme, though I haven't seen them - something I should remedy soon!

So whenever you see three corpses, and three living figures, whether the corpses are lying in their coffins or dancing about, it's probably a reference to this legend. It's intended as a reminder of our mortality, but more than that, it's intended to make us think seriously about living a good life. After all, the story implies, you never know when you might meet death.

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