Gallery 8 – Time and Death.

Gallery 8A: Epitaphs.

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Figs 1 – 3 show typical uses of the motto “Hodie mihi, cras tibi” (Today is mine, tomorrow yours) in a graveyard setting: Fig.1 on a chapel porch; Fig.2 on a gravestone; and Fig.3 on a cemetery wall. Fig.4 is a Memento Mori (= Remember Death) engraving by the Flemish artist and engraver Dominicus Custos of c.1600 in the British Museum. The phrase “Hodie mihi, cras tibi” appears on the stonework just above the skull. For more on this image, see the notes on Gallery 8C below. Fig.5 is another “Hodie mihi, cras tibi” engraving, again Flemish and dating from about 1600. As regards the lines at the foot of the print, three are quotations from the Vulgate version of St Matthew’s Gospel – line 1 is from Matthew 25.13 and lines 4 & 5 are from Matthew 16.26. The first is the most relevant to our present theme: “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour.” (The other two lines are from popular devotional works of the time.)

Gallery 8B: The Dance of Death.

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Fig.1: Death & the Pope:  Here the Pope, with Death at his side, is crowning an Emperor, who kneels before him. Two church potentates look on, one of whom is followed by a second figure of Death. Two Devils are also in attendance, one of whom hovers over the Pope; the other, in the air, holds a document, from which hang several (papal?) seals. The theme is clearly the transience of High Office, both Papal and Regal.

Fig.2: Death & the King: The King is seated at a table, well-stocked with food. Death appears here as a cupbearer, presenting the King with his final draught. Holbein here quotes Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 10.10: “And he that is today a King, tomorrow shall die.”

Fig.3: Death & the Judge: The Judge is deciding a cause between a rich man and a poor man. From the former he is about to receive a bribe. But Death takes his staff of office from behind him, the theme here being that no bribe can rescue him from Death.

Fig.4: Death & the Nun: The young Nun is kneeling before an altar, but looks away from it and looks instead towards the young man, who sits on the bed behind her, playing a lute. Death is extinguishing the candles on the altar, signifying that the young Nun has been distracted from her spiritual devotions and tempted by the pleasures of the flesh. The message is that worldly pleasures bring Death in their train.

Fig.5: Death & the Merchant: Here the Merchant is being pulled away from his earthly goods by the figure of Death. The message here is that wealth is, in the face of Death, a worthless thing.

Fig.6: Death & the Husbandman: Here Death is speeding along the Husbandman’s plough towards the grave, though here there is a hint that death is a release from the hard labour of life. Holbein quotes from Genesis 3.19 here, so there is certainly also a message that the Husbandman is returning whence he came – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Fig.7: Death & the Child: A cottager is preparing her family meal, when Death enters and drags off her young child. Holbein here quotes Job14.1-2, conveying the message that man that is born of a woman has but a short time to live.

Fig,8: The Escutcheon of Death: The shield is threadbare in several places. On it is a skull, a snake or worm coming out of its mouth. The shield is surmounted by two arm-bones, the hands of which grasp a pointed piece of stone, and between them is placed an hour-glass, which the skeletal arms are presumably about to dash to pieces with the stone. This would seem to signify that even Time must eventually be subject to Death. In attendance, either side of the shield, are a man and a woman in 16th century dress. Since Holbein here quotes Ecclesiasticus 7.36 the message is clearly: remember Death and it will help you to lead a sinless life. This, then, is a Memento Mori shield, on which see the notes on Gallery 8C below.

Holbein’s “Escutcheon” has been much copied and adapted, for which see the excellent web-site: The most interesting of these, published in 1825, and reproduced here as Fig.9, is by the “pseudo-Bewick” (that is, someone posing as John Bewick, who had published his Emblems of Mortality in 1789, and which must have been a popular enough work for it be to be worth pirating.) Here Holbein’s male and female attendants have themselves become figures of Death, the one on the right with a Scythe, the one on the left with an Arrow (on which emblems see the notes on Gallery 8D, Folder 2 and Gallery 8D, Folder 3 below.)

For an “Escutcheon of Death” by Dürer, see Gallery 8E, Fig.6.

Gallery 8C: Memento Mori.

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The skull as a symbol of the transience of human life is a regular feature in paintings of the Saints. Two examples are shown here, Zurbarán’s painting of St Francis of Assisi in meditation (Fig.1) and Caravaggio’s painting of St. Jerome (Fig.2). But the skull as a reminder of mortality features in secular paintings as well. Frans Hals’ “Youth with a Skull” is shown as an example (Fig.3). Such reminders of the transience of life are naturally linked to so-called “Vanitas” paintings – reminders, as the Book of Ecclesiastes puts it, that “all is vanity”. Hans Memling’s triptych “Vanity and Salvation” (Fig.4) is an excellent illustration of this. The central panel shows a naked young woman admiring herself in a mirror. The left hand panel shows what awaits her youth and beauty, and thus the futility of her vanity. The right hand panel shows Hell, the fate which all-too-easily awaits those guilty of Vanity, Pride and such like. Three other examples of Vanitas paintings are shown here in Figs.5 to 7. Pieter Claesz’s “Vanitas” (Fig.5 - he did several) and David Bailly’s “Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols” (Fig.6) are both Dutch and of 17th Century date. (Note the bubbles in the latter, recalling earlier comments about Millais’ painting “Bubbles”.) William Michael Harnett’s “Memento Mori – To This Favour” (Fig.7) of 1879 is a relatively modern example.

The “vanitas” message of the central and left panels of Memling’s painting is repeated in sculpture. Fig.8 shows a late 15th century carving in ivory. Seen from one side is the image of a young woman; seen from the other side is the image of Death. Fig.9a & Fig.9b are two views of a much more elaborate ivory rosary bead. Its full significance is unclear, but it would appear to involve images of youth, old age, death and hell. Fig.10 is another vanitas image again, a skull wreathed in laurel leaves, the message being that laurels are of no use to the dead. Fig.11 & Fig.12 - both Memento Mori gravestones - need no explanation.

Fig.13 is an interesting example of a Memento Mori Pendant. It depicts a weeping angel with its right elbow resting on a Skull and its left hand resting on an Hourglass. The Hourglass is a regular symbol of Memento Mori paintings – it features in Harnett’s painting (Fig.7 above), for example, and in Evelyn de Morgan’s painting “The Hour Glass” (Gallery 3F, Fig.7.) The medal bears the date 1628, though it is actually of 19th century manufacture, and the clue to its nature is given by the legend APRES N. BLASSET D’AMIENS, for the weeping angel on the pendant copies the sculpture by Nicolas Blasset on the tomb of Canon Guilain Lucas (who died in 1628) in Amiens Cathedral (Fig.14). The pendant is thus as much a 19th century souvenir of a visit to Amiens Cathedral as a reminder of the transience of life! Blasset’s sculpture is but one example of a common memento mori image – Fig.15 is another interesting example of the type, this time English and dating from c. 1700, being a pair of sculpted infants, one holding an hourglass, the other holding a skull. The pair would originally have adorned a tomb, though they now reside in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Compare also the memento mori engraving in Gallery 8A, Fig.4 and in Gallery 8H, Fig.13.

Fig.16 shows an interesting 18th century memento mori drawing which actually links up with Time (via the Scythe – see Appendix 14c and Gallery 8D, Folder 2 below.) Death/Time holds an Hourglass, and the Spade is presumably symbolic of earth to earth. Quite what was to be written in the blank scroll-like panel isn’t clear.

Fig.17 is far and away the most exaggerated reminder of death featured in this gallery, being a clock said to be of Victorian date, but which actually looks more modern. Its degree of exaggeration must surely be poking fun at Death, and it can only be described as Memento Mori Kitsch of the first order!

Fig.18 shows the Roman memento mori / Epicurean drinking cups described in some detail in Appendix 14a and the notes on verse 25.

Fig.19 shows a (presumed) memento mori mosaic from Pompeii.

Fig.20 shows three skeletal memento mori manikins from Roman times (for which see the notes on Appendix 14a.)

Fig.21 shows an Ancient Egyptian memento mori ‘mummy’ in wood, together with its obelisk-shaped box or ‘coffin’ – again, see the notes on Appendix 14a for details.

Fig.22 shows an English memento mori pendant of c.1550 – a (relatively) modern companion for Fig.21 to be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Fig.23 shows a French memento mori ring of c.1660.

Gallery 8D: The Scythe of Time

Folder 1: Kronos & Saturnus.

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Fig.1 is the ancient image of Kronos/Saturnus, holding a sickle.

Fig.2 is the 16th century painting, by Vasari and Gherardi, of Kronos (Saturn) castrating his father Ouranos (Uranus), seemingly with a scythe rather than a sickle!

Fig.3 is probably the best known image in this Gallery, being Goya’s strange painting of Saturn devouring one of his children, painted sometime between about 1819 and 1823. It is one of his so-called ‘Black Paintings’.

Fig.4 likewise depicts Saturn swallowing one of his sons, but is by Rubens. It was painted between about 1636 and 1638.

Figs.5-7 are three examples of the medieval to early modern astrological representations of Saturnus, riding in his sky-chariot drawn by Serpents (whose chthonic nature links them to the ancient role of Saturnus as an agricultural deity), and carrying his scythe (Fig.5 & Fig.7) or sickle (Fig.6). In Fig.6 he also carries some stalks of wheat, again relating to agriculture. Note the zodiacal signs (Capricorn & Aquarius) on the wheels of the chariot in Fig.5. Insofar as Saturnus is by now equated with Time, this is also now “Time’s winged chariot.”

Folder 2: Father Time.

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On several occasions in the course of this essay we have come across illustrations of Father Time and his Scythe – in Millais’ paintings “Time the Reaper” and “Spring (Apple Blossoms)” (Gallery 3C, Fig.7); in Walter Crane’s painting “The Mower” (Gallery 3D, Fig.3); and in two of Gordon Ross’ illustrations to The Rubaiyat (v. 24 & 34 – Gallery 2B, Folder 1, Fig.3 &: Fig.4.) Another fine illustration is shown here as Fig.1: William Strang’s engraving “Father Time” (1899). Here the winged figure of Time (“time flies” in its most basic form) is seated atop the World, holding his Scythe, and with an Hourglass at his feet. He holds a book, presumably representing the Pages of History.

In the notes on verse 8, I mentioned Gustave Doré’s design for a clock, incorporating “Time mowing down the Hours”. It is shown here as Fig.2. The figure of Father Time mounted on or beside a clock is not uncommon. An American example of about 1890 is shown in Fig.3, and in William Hogarth’s painting “The Graham Children” of 1742 (Fig.4), a Father Time Clock can be seen in the background, on the left of the painting, though most people’s attention is usually drawn to the cat eyeing up the bird in its cage!

Two, more unusual, images of Father Time are also shown. Fig.5 is a 19th century English print entitled “Rome and Time”. In contrast to the usual image of Rome, like all other Empires, falling into decay with the passage of time, here Rome seems to flourish whilst the figure of Time sleeps! Fig.6 is an engraving by William Hogarth entitled “Time smoking a Picture” (1761). This is actually a satire on the craze for “old art”, for the figure of Time, who sits upon a fragmented statue (genuine old art), is forging old art from a new painting by blowing smoke at its varnished surface so as to give it the appearance of age. (There is a large jar of varnish to the lower left, being pointed at by the hand of the broken statue.) Father Time further adds to the appearance of age by making a tear in the canvas with his Scythe.

Folder 3: The Figure of Death.

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Fig.1 is an interesting example of an English funeral card dating from 1776. Father Time appears on the right, with his Scythe and Hourglass (and, incidentally, with his Forelock – on which see the note at the end of Appendix 14b.) Death appears on the left, with a bow and arrows. The same image appears in the wooden statuette shown in Fig.2, which is German and c.1670 in date, and in the medieval church carving shown in Fig.3, which is again German. Note the hourglass carried by Death in Fig.3 – not surprisingly, the figures of Death and Time quite regularly overlap. The well-known painting “Death of the Miser” by Hieronymus Bosch, a detail of which is shown in Fig.4, is somewhat different, in that it depicts the figure of Death wielding an arrow, but with no bow. The symbolism is clearly the same, however (compare Gallery 8G, Fig.3.)

As an interesting aside, according to Aesop’s Fable, “Death and Cupid”, one hot summer's afternoon Cupid went into a cave to rest. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the cave where Death lived. As Cupid threw himself down on the floor, the arrows spilled out of his quiver and got mixed up with those of Death. When he awoke he gathered them up as best he could; but they were all so mixed up that although he knew how many to take, he could not really tell which were his own. As a result, he took up some of the arrows which really belonged to Death, and left behind some of his own. And this is the reason, Aesop explains, why sometimes we see the hearts of the old and decrepit pierced with the arrows of Cupid – for these arrows belonged to Cupid, but were fired by Death; and also why sometimes we see youth and beauty pierced with the arrows of Death – for these arrows belonged to Death, but were fired by Cupid. Fig.5 is an illustration of this fable, taken from Samuel Croxall’s Fables of Æsop and Others, translated into English: with Instructive Applications and a Print before each Fable (1831). Croxall’s Application of this fable is of some Omarian interest, and relates to the issues discussed in Appendix 2:

“If we allow for this Fable’s being written by a heathen, and according to the scheme of the ancient pagan theology, it will appear to be a pretty probable solution of some parts of the dispensation of providence, which otherwise seem to be obscure and unaccountable. For, when we see the young and the old fall promiscuously, by the hand of Death, and at the same time to consider that the world is governed by an all-wise providence, we are puzzled how to account for so seemingly preposterous and unnatural a way of working. We should look upon a gardener to be mad, or at least very capricious, who when his young trees are just arrived to a degree of bearing, should cut them down for fuel, and choose out old, rotten, decayed, sapless stocks, to graft and innoculate upon; yet the irregular proceeding of those two levellers, Love and Death, appears to be every jot as odd and unreasonable.

However, we must take it for granted, that these things, though the method of them is hidden from our eyes, are transacted after the most just and fit manner imaginable; but, humanly speaking, it is strange that Death should be suffered to make such undistinguished havoc in the world; and at the same time, just as shocking, and unnatural to see old age laid betwixt a pair of wedding sheets, as it is for youth and beauty to be locked up in the cold embraces of the grave.” (p.241)

A variation on Aesop’s fable is to be found in a poem entitled “Trois contes de Cupido et Atropos” (Three tales of Cupid and Atropos” – Atropos being the Fate which cannot be avoided), written by the French poet Jean Lemaire, in about 1500. In it, Cupid and Death get drunk together and accidentally exchange their bows. L.P.Kurtz, in his book The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature (1934) tells the story thus:

“Death has the bow of Cupid and Cupid takes the bow of Death. The results on humanity can easily be imagined. Finally the two take counsel as to the best means of restoring things to a normal state of affairs. Jupiter gives Cupid a new bow through the agency of Mercury. Death is permitted to retain the bow that she possesses. She will use it against old men, inspiring them with a ridiculous love that will remain unrequited.” (p.223-4)

On the sex of Death, see Kurtz chapter 13 (p.209-213.)

Another elaboration on Aesop’s theme is James Shirley’s masque “Cupid and Death” (1653), in which Cupid and Death accidentally exchange arrows. As a result, Cupid shoots at potential young lovers and kills them, whilst Death shoots at old people and arouses their passions. At one point a Chamberlain is struck by Death with one of Cupid's arrow, and falls in love with an ape as a result!

Folder 4: Love and Death.

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Love and Death have often been paired in literature and art. Though not a key feature of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, we have nevertheless come across several examples of the pairing in the course of this essay – notably in Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel” (both poem and painting); in Burne-Jones’ “Love among the Ruins”; in Millais’ “Speak! Speak!”; in Watts’ paired paintings “Love and Death” and “Love and Life”; and in Vedder’s similarly paired pictures “The Cup of Love” and “The Cup of Death” (all of which are illustrated in Gallery 3.) Dürer’s “Young Couple threatened by Death” (Gallery 8E, Fig.1) is another example. Two other interesting examples of the pairing of Love and Death are shown here. Fig.1 is Hans Thoma’s painting “Self-Portrait with Love and Death”, painted in the 1870s, and Fig.2 is Thoma’s engraving, “The Newlyweds” of 1896, which shows a young newly married couple attended by the figures of Love (Cupid), there for obvious reasons, and Death – ever ready to separate them. (This image is taken from the web-site; compare  Dürer’s engraving, mentioned above; also the pairing of Cupid and Death in Folder 3.) In The Greek Anthology are two poignant examples of proposed marriages cut short by Death. The first is the epitaph of Cleanassa, the last lines of which read: “On the very day that the lights were lit around thy bridal bed thou camest to no wedding chamber, but to thy funeral pyre.”(7.188) The second refers to the bridegroom Evagoras, who died before he could marry Scyllis. As for the bride, “within three months she perished, her spirit wasted by deadly melancholy.” The epitaph concludes: “This tearful memorial of their love stands on the tomb of both beside the smooth high-way.” (7.475: translations by W.R.Paton.)

The pairing of Love and Death arises in several contexts. To begin with, in chapter 11 of his novel Death in the Afternoon (1932), Ernest Hemingway says that if two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it. Either the love dies, or (the case that particularly concerned Hemingway, and which we have just encountered in The Greek Anthology) the lovers are parted by the death of one of them. The latter possibility, of course, merges into the issue of whether love can transcend death by virtue of a reunion in a life beyond the grave. This is the theme behind Rossetti’s “The Blessed Damozel”, and ancient examples of it are to be found on an Etruscan sarcophagi of about the 6th century BC which show a husband and wife united in their after-life (see F.P.Weber, Aspects of Death and Correlated Aspects of Life in Art, Epigram and Poetry (1922), p.409-410 for this and other examples of hoped-for reunion beyond the grave. Note, however, that Weber’s cited example of an Etruscan sarcophagus, which is illustrated here as Fig.3, is now acknowledged to be a forgery, though there are genuine examples of the same type – see

Another pairing of Love and Death arises where a Mother dies in the process of giving birth to a child. Weber (op. cit., p.376 & p.407) cites the sepulchral monument of the wife of Pierre de Puget who in 1673 “voluntarily underwent the Caesarian operation for the sake of her child, who was thus delivered and lived, whilst she herself died.” Her monument bore as part of its inscription the lines: “Mors et Amor tanto potuerunt funere jungi” meaning, “Love and Death could be united by such a funeral.”

Yet another pairing of Love and Death arises where one of a pair of lovers sacrifices their life in order to save the life of the other. A good example of this is provided by Euripedes’ play Alcestis. In brief, Alcestis is the devoted wife of King Admetus, and the story behind the play is that the god Apollo has granted Admetus a reprieve from death, but only on the condition that he (Admetus) can find someone to take his place – willingly – when Death comes for him. As the time of Admetus' death approaches, though, he still has not found a willing substitute, and in the end, Alcestis agrees to take his place because she does not wish to see her children fatherless, and nor can she bear to see her husband taken from her.

More obscurely, a merciful or timely death can be seen as an act of Love by Death. Thus, Evelyn de Morgan’s spiritualist-inspired painting “The Angel of Death” (illustrated in Gallery 3F, Fig.9) shows Death as a loving figure approaching a welcoming victim. Again, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his poem “Love and Death”, writes:

When Death smites the aged,
Escaping above
Flies the soul re-deliver’d
By Death unto Love.

And in the final verse of the same poem:

And if, nobly hoping,
Thou gazest above,
In Death thou beholdest
The aspect of Love.

In similar vein, Shakespeare in King John (Act 3, Scene 4, line 25) uses the phrase “O, amiable lovely death!” This and other examples of Death as a Friend in poetry are given in Weber (op.cit. p.228-9), and in art Alfred Rethel’s engraving “Death as a Friend”(1851) is a prime example (Weber p.237-8; reproduced here as Fig.4.) This engraving forms a pair with Rethel’s other engraving “Death as an Enemy” (otherwise known as “Death the Strangler”, reproduced in Gallery 8F, Fig.5.)

Gallery 8E – Albrecht Dürer.

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In this gallery are shown six illustrations by Dürer, their generally acknowledged titles (not necessarily given to them by the artist himself!) being as follows:

Fig.1 – “Young Couple threatened by Death” or “The Promenade” (1498).

Fig.2 – “Death and the Landsknecht (Mercenary)” (1510)

Fig.3 – “Young Woman attacked by Death” or “The Ravisher” (1495)

Fig.4 – “Knight, Death and Devil” (1513)

Fig.5 – “Abduction of Proserpine on a Unicorn” (1516)

Fig.6 – “Coat of Arms with a Skull” (1503)

Amongst the works of Dürer we find two types of image of Death. The first is the traditional grinning Skeleton. He (or she) is present in Figs 1 & 2, in both cases with an Hourglass. The second is the rather more puzzling “Wild Man” figure, who features in Figs.3 – 6. He requires some explanation.

On the one hand the Wild Man was literally an untamed and uncivilised savage, as encountered by travellers in foreign parts, but also, nearer home, in those cases – much more common in medieval times – where the outcast or the mentally ill lived wild on the edges of civilised communities. He was part man, part beast. He ate raw flesh (including unbaptised children), could not speak, abducted women, and knew nothing of God. In some respects, too, he was probably the bogey-man, as much myth as anything, a useful device to frighten disobedient children. On the other hand, the Wild Man was ‘the beast within’ – representative of the violent and lustful primitive forces inside all of us which need to be controlled to maintain a civilised – and pious – society. He thus became a semi-demonic creature of allegory. But whether beast or symbol, his image was very popular in medieval times, starting from about the 12th century, though mostly from the latter half of the 14th century. He was well-established, then, by the time of his appearance in Dürer’s works and, incidentally, as “the wyld man” of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (Book 6, Canto 4.)

The history of the Wild Man (and his female counterpart, the Wild Woman) in folklore, literature and art is very complex, and for a full account the reader is referred to the standard work on the subject: Richard Bernheimer’s book Wild Men in the Middle Ages: a Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology (1952). Two things about the Wild Man particularly concern us here. The first is his connection with lust and his abduction of women (Bernheimer p.23). The second is his connection with death and the Underworld. The origin of the second is obscure, but Bernheimer writes:

 “The most interesting, and to some perhaps the most surprising of the wild folk’s affinities, is the very strong one of the wild man with Orcus, the Italic god of death and the underworld. It comes out in the Tyrolean habit, prevalent until recently, of calling wild men either Orke, Lorke, or Noerglein. In France it has led to the creation of the ogre, who has so many things in common with the wild man, and in Italy to that of the orco or huorco, who cuts his capers in Basile’s Pentamerone (seventeenth century).”(p.42)

Horace refers to Death as Orcus in one of his odes: “Rich man…poor man, it makes no odds…you shall fall Orcus’s victim, who pities none.” (2.3.21-4; translation by W.G. Shepherd.) Returning to Dürer’s engravings, though, Figs.3 and 4 are now clear in meaning – in the former, Death as the Wild Man is abducting the woman and dragging her off to the Underworld, and in the latter, Death has again become a Wild Man – this time with an Hourglass and, seemingly, with serpents/worms emerging from his head, indicative of corruption.

Fig.5, though generally accepted as a scene from Roman mythology – the abduction of Proserpine by Pluto – is actually closely related to the Wild Man theme, and in particular to Fig.3. This requires a little more explanation. The story of the abduction (or rape) of Proserpine is probably best known through Ovid’s Metamorphoses (5.391ff): Proserpine was gathering flowers in a grove when Pluto, God of the Underworld appeared, fell instantly in love with her, and promptly abducted her in his chariot, carrying her off to his subterranean kingdom of Death. In Fig.5, then, it is no accident that Pluto is depicted as a Wild Man, for the Wild Man as a figure of Death and abductor of women is like a medieval Pluto. In fact, the two have more in common than just this, for as Bernheimer points out (p.42-3) both are also associated with the fertility of the earth (as are both Proserpine and Maia, the consort of Orcus.) It is interesting that Dürer depicts Pluto abducting Proserpine on a Unicorn, for classical sources – from the Homeric Hymn “To Demeter” to Claudian’s “Rape of Proserpine” – have her abducted by chariot. But since Wild Men (and Women) are often depicted riding stags or unicorns (Bernheimer p.27), Dürer’s choice is no mere artistic whim. In the words of Bernheimer, Dürer’s etching is a “synthesis of native folklore and Greek myth” (p.134). As to the why of the unicorn, this appears to rest on the various accounts of the beast contained in classical literature: Aelian, in his Historia Animalium (16.20) tells us that “it seeks out the most desolate places and wanders there alone” and Pliny, in his Natural History (8.31), tells us that it is “exceedingly wild” and “cannot be taken alive”. The Unicorn is a suitable steed for a Wild Man, therefore! (The standard work on the unicorn is Odell Shepherd, The Lore of the Unicorn (1930; 1967), chapter 1 giving a good account of the unicorn in classical sources.)

Fig.6 is a real oddity, and is sometimes dubbed “The Escutcheon of Death” (compare the Escutcheon by Holbein, in Gallery 8B, Fig.8.) Bernheimer points out that the Wild Man came to have a curious role as a supporter of heraldic shields, though Dürer has taken this role much further than this in his engraving. Bernheimer (p.183-4) believes that it is essentially a marriage print, with the Skull on the Shield indicating that it also has a memento mori role: when the Wild Man kisses his ‘bride’, it is the Kiss of Death. This, then, would relate the engraving to Fig.3, and also to the Love and Death theme of Fig.1. However, Bernheimer’s very plausible interpretation does rather leave the huge winged helmet unexplained. The winged helmet, of course, is most readily associated with the Roman god Mercury (or Greek god Hermes), but what is it doing here (if it is indeed the helmet of Mercury/Hermes)? The answer may lie in the role of Hermes as the god who escorts the newly dead to the Underworld, and helps them to board Charon’s boat across the River Styx – illustrated in Fig.7. (In this role, whose origins are far from clear, he is known as “Hermes Psychopompos”.) To cite a well-known example, Hermes features in this role in Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, in the dialogue between Menippus and Hermes, at the end of which Hermes excuses himself “to go and fetch the new-dead”. (This is after Hermes has shown Menippus the skull of Helen of Troy, and Menippus has been forced to exclaim: “And for this a thousand ships carried warriors from every part of Greece?”) The Roman god Mercury, in the same role, features in the story of the nymph Lara, as told in Ovid’s Fasti (2.599ff). Lara had a fault, and it was gossiping. After leaking the secret of Jupiter’s affair with her sister Juturna to his wife, Juno, Jupiter tore out her tongue and ordered Mercury to take her to the Underworld. But on the way Mercury fell in love with her, and though “he would have used force” he had no need, for (having lost her tongue) “she pleaded with a look” As a result “she went with child, and bore twins” – the Lares, the guardians of the city of Rome. (J.G.Frazer’s translation) One wonders, then, if Dürer, in his engraving, is recalling  Hermes/Mercury’s role as the escort of the newly dead to the Underworld, with the hint that Death can come swiftly, on wings – compare the winged “Angel of Death” in Evelyn de Morgan’s painting of that title (Gallery 3F, Fig.9). Indeed, one wonders if the young woman in the engraving is, like Lara, pregnant, and there is a reference here to death in child-birth. At any rate, the engraving is a contentious one, and it is worth adding Erwin Panofsky’s interesting observations on the time at which Dürer did this engraving (1503), as given in his book Albrecht Dürer (1948):

“…the year 1503 was marked by a series of strange and sinister events which left their imprint on Dürer’s imagination. A comet appeared, and what Dürer calls ‘the greatest portent I have ever seen’ filled Nuremberg with terror: a ‘blood rain’ (now known to be caused by a harmless alga, palmella prodigiosa) fell on many people, staining their clothes with the sign of the cross. Dürer recorded one of these mysterious marks – not only a cross, but a whole Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St. John – which he had seen on the shirt of a terrified servant girl. Soon enough these evil omens were followed by the outbreak of epidemic diseases – then all grouped under the name of ‘the plague’ – which flared up here and there and reached dangerous proportions in various parts of Germany. In Nuremberg, it seems, the situation did not grow serious until the early summer of 1505, but many persons had already fallen sick in 1503, and among them Dürer himself. The Coat of Arms of Death, hard to reconcile with the spirit of a period which produced the Little Hare and the engraving Adam and Eve, must be interpreted against this background of horror and fear….” (vol.1, p.90)

Finally, returning to Fig.4, we should mention that Dürer’s “Knight, Death and the Devil” became the inspiration for a rather curious work of fantasy. In about 1800 one Eduard Hitsig gave Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué a copy of the engraving, and challenged him to write a story to account for the strange goings-on depicted in it. The result was a novel, Sintram und seine Gefährten, first published in Vienna in 1815. It was first translated into English as early as 1820, but the version that concerns us here is the later translation by A.C. Farquharson, Sintram and his Companions, published by Methuen & Co in 1908, for this edition contains 20 illustrations by Edmund J. Sullivan. The most interesting of these is the one which Sullivan based directly on the Dürer engraving, shown here as Fig.8 (facing p.178 of the book; the Dürer engraving itself features as the frontispiece.) On the far left is the figure of “the mad pilgrim” (Death), and on the horse behind Sintram is “the Master Dwarf” (the Devil) – they both appear again in Fig.9 (facing p.122), Death (in the guise of Time) with his familiar Scythe and Hour-glass. As with the illustrations by Sullivan described in Gallery 2A, his illustrations for Sintram and his Companions repay detailed scrutiny, and fortunately the Methuen edition of 1908 can be found online at:

Gallery 8F – Arnold Böcklin.

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Swiss symbolist Böcklin’s best known painting today is his “Isle of the Dead”, the first of several versions of which, painted in 1880, is shown here as Fig.1. Though Böcklin apparently never officially said so, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that ultimately the painting is based on the age-old image of Charon ferrying the dead across the River Styx (on which see the notes on Gallery 2A, Folder 1, Fig.3; also compare the Boat of Death in Crane’s painting, “The Bridge of Life”, in Gallery 3D, Fig.2.) However, it is a fact that the title “Isle of the Dead” was actually bestowed on the painting by an art dealer named Fritz Gurlitt, and that “all that Böcklin saw in this painting was ‘a picture for dreaming about’.” (Arnold Böcklin  1827-1901, Arts Council & Pro Helvetia exhibition catalogue (1971), p.31.) Be that as it may, Böcklin’s painting inspired Rachmaninov’s tone poem “The Isle of the Dead”.

Also of particular interest to us here is Böcklin’s “Self-Portrait with Death playing the Fiddle”(1872), shown here as Fig.2. The image of Death playing the fiddle has a history connecting it with the medieval ‘Dance of Death’ masques and murals described in Appendix 14a, and illustrated via Holbein’s woodcuts in Gallery 8B above. To see how it comes about is well illustrated by Figs.3–5. Fig.3 is Eberhard Kieser’s frontispiece to Icones Mortis Sexaginta Imaginibus (1648) – “Toden Tantz” means “Dance of Death” – and though the book is clearly modelled on Holbein’s woodcuts (and thus a series of encounters between Death and individuals from all levels of society), in this frontispiece it is literally a dance of the living and the dead to the music of a skeletal band! Fig.4, Michael Wolgemut’s “Danse Macabre” of 1493, is a relative of this, but seemingly related to superstitious beliefs that at midnight (on occasions like Halloween and the Day of the Dead), Death strikes up a tune, here on some sort of wind instrument, whereupon the dead arise from their graves to dance till dawn. Interestingly, Saint-Saëns’ famous tone poem, “Danse Macabre”(1874), was based on an earlier piano-accompanied song of his, whose words, by the symbolist poet Henri Cazalis, were based on this very superstition. In the poem, Death strikes up his tune specifically on a violin. The first two verses in translation read:

Zig, zig, zag, Death with rhythm,
Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.

The winter wind blows, and the night is dark;
Moans emerge from the linden trees.
White skeletons pass through the gloom,
Running and jumping in their shrouds.

After some racy antics involving a marchioness and a poor cartwright, “they all hold hands and dance in circles” until the cock-crows. (For the possible origins of the word “macabre” in “Danse Macabre” from the German-Jewish dance of the maqabrē(y) or ‘buriers of the dead’, see Robert Eisler’s article “Danse Macabre” in Traditio, vol.6 (1948), p.187-225, in particular p.200. For the actual dance of the skeletons in particular, see p.194-6. There are other suggestions as to the origins of “macabre”, though (as indeed Eisler says): compare L.P.Kurtz, The Dance of Death (1934), p.21-24.)

This brings us to Fig.5 – Alfred Rethel’s “Death as an Enemy” or “Death the Strangler” of 1847, subtitled “The first outbreak of cholera at a masked ball in Paris 1831.” Note the musicians escaping in the background, and the figure of Death imitating a violin with two human bones. (Rethel apparently titled this engraving “Der Tod als Feind (Erwürger)”, hence “Death as Enemy (Strangler)”. See J. Ponten, Alfred Rethel: eine Auswahl aus dem Lebenswerk des Meister in 147 Abildungen (1921), plate 63.)

Returning to Böcklin, now, his two paintings entitled “War”, both completed in 1896, are shown in Figs.6 and 7. It is difficult to be sure exactly what Böcklin had in mind in Fig.6, but we seem to have Thor, with his hammer, signifying might, strength and destructive power (by his association with the storm); a Battle-Hag or a Valkyrie (possibly Freya herself), to whom falls the choice of which warriors are to live and which to die in battle; and, of course, the figure of Death himself, with his Scythe. Fig.7 is a little different, in that it seems at first to be loosely based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation (Rev.6.2-8),  there being four riders, with Death on the right, recalling that famous sentence: “behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” However, Death’s horse is not the pale one, and, more puzzlingly, there are three horses to four figures! The other three figures besides Death seem to be, left to right, a torch-bearing Fury; a Viking-like warrior; and a Medusa-like Battle-Hag with a headband of snakes. So, if Böcklin was initially inspired by the Book of Revelation, he certainly took some artistic licence with the theme.

Fig.8 is an interesting relative of the foregoing, and connected with The Rubaiyat via its creator, Edmund J. Sullivan (Gallery 2A). Appalled by what he saw as “The Crucifixion of Belgium” at the start of the First World War, and by the execution of the British nurse Edith Cavell for helping allied soldiers to escape, Sullivan produced a book of drawings entitled The Kaiser's Garland (1915), subsequently used for propaganda purposes. Fig.8, “Mariage de Convenance” (“Marriage of Convenience”) is one of the drawings, showing  Kaiser Wilhelm II with Death as his Bride, their path being strewn with fresh roses thrown by chimpanzees, while the Bride’s bouquet is visibly dying. Figs.9 & 10 are two other drawings bearing similar symbolism from the same book. Fig.9 is entitled "The Path of Glory", and Fig.10, "Dancing Partners".

Fig.11 is Böcklin’s painting “Plague” (1898), in which the figure of Death rides through a town on a winged-beast, flailing his scythe indiscriminately as he goes. This bears comparison with Fig.12, Dirk Volkertsz Coornhert’s 16th century engraving “The Triumph of Death” (seemingly an illustration for Petrarch’s poem of the same name.)

Gallery 8G – William Blake.

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These illustrations relate to Appendix 12, but since they also relate to the Time and Death themes of Gallery 8, they are included here.

Figs. 1 & 2 – two of Blake’s illustrations for Robert Blair’s poem The Grave. Fig.1 depicts the soul hovering over the body at death. Fig.2 depicts Death’s Door.

Fig.3 – One of Blake’s illustrated pages for Edward Young’s poem Night Thoughts. Note Time’s Scythe and Forelock (for the latter see Appendix 14b); also the Arrow being wielded by Death, and which Time seems to be trying to ward off from Friendship, as represented by the young couple. (Compare Death with an Arrow in Gallery 8D, Folder 3, Fig.4.)

Fig.4 – Blake’s pen and watercolour painting inspired by James Hervey’s book Meditations among the Tombs. Part of the Tate Gallery Catalogue Entry on this complex work reads as follows:

“In the foreground ‘Hervey’ is seen from behind between an ‘Angel of Providence’ and a ‘Guardian Angel’, standing before an altar which bears the Eucharistic bread and wine. Above he sees a sequence of incidents from the Old Testament arranged on a spiral staircase. At the top of this vision appears God the Father with a scroll; then ‘Adam’, ‘Eve’ and the ‘Serpent’; ‘Cain’ and ‘Abel’ as children; ‘Enoch’; ‘Noah’ with his Ark; the ‘Mother of Leah & Rachel’ and the ‘Mother of Rebecca’; ‘Abraham believed God’, with Isaac; ‘Aaron’; ‘David’; and ‘Solomon’. The sequence culminates in the Transfiguration group, ‘Jesus’ flanked by ‘Moses’ and ‘Elias’, directly over the altar.

Above God the Father is the source of the fire that fills much of the upper part of the picture, with the inscription ‘God out of Christ is a Consuming Fire’, a variant of Hebrews, xii, 29, quoted by Calvinists to prove the existence of Hell. In the two upper corners appear ‘MERCY’ and ‘WRATH’.

On the left of the picture a number of figures rise towards Mercy, assisted by ‘Ministering Angels’. Starting at the bottom, where there is a font labelled ‘Baptism’, they are accompanied by the words ‘Old Age’, ‘Babe’, ‘Wife’, ‘Husband’, ‘Infancy’, ‘Where is your Father’ and ‘These died for Love’.

On the right two ‘Angel[s] of Death’, two ‘Protecting Angel[s]’ and a group of ‘Recording Angels’ escort the resurrected ‘Virgin’, ‘Widow’, ‘Father’, ‘Mother’, ‘The Lost Child’, ‘Sophronia Died in Childbed’, ‘Orphan’, ‘She died on the Wedding Day’ and ‘orphans’.”

In addition to the sources cited in Appendix 12, Martin Butlin’s book The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake (2 volumes, 1981) is also very useful. For Blair, see vol.1, p.454ff; for Young, see vol.1, p.178ff; and for Hervey, see vol.1, 536-7, with, in each case, the relevant plates being found in vol.2.

Gallery 8H: Miscellaneous.

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The idea of Death as a Cup-Bearer, clearly based on death by drinking poison, gives rise to another recurrent image, notably in connection with FitzGerald’s verse 48 (“the Angel with his darker Draught”) – see Vedder’s illustration for this verse and his painting “The Cup of Death” in Gallery 3H (Fig.3 & Fig.4), for example. In the present Gallery, Fig.1 is Herbert Cole’s illustration of this same verse in a 1905 edition of The Rubaiyat. Related to this, Fig.2 is Alfred Rethel’s drawing “Death as a Servant” ("Der Tod als Diener" of 1848: see Ponten, op.cit., plate 62), sometimes referred to as “Death as Cup-Bearer”, in which Death is depicted as a butler serving drinks at a party.

FitzGerald’s verse 49 (‘Tis all a Chequer board of Nights and Days) naturally recalls the image of Death playing Chess, which is probably best known to most people through Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal” of 1957. What is less well known is that Bergman got the idea for this image from a wall-painting by Albertus Pictor in the medieval church of Täby (Stockholm), dating from the latter half of the 15th century, and shown here as Fig.3. Another image of Death playing Chess with a King, attributed to Israhel von Meckenem, also dating from the latter half of the 15th century, is shown in Fig.4.

Likewise FitzGerald’s verse 50 ("The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes") naturally recalls other images of Life (and Death) viewed as a game. As mentioned in the notes on verse 50, Fig.5 and Fig.6 are taken from Richard Dagley’s Death’s Doings (1827), the first seeing Life as a Game of Cricket and the second seeing Death as a Game of Dice. Fig.7 shows Alfred Rethel’s print “Dance of Death 3”, whose symbolism (as explained in the notes on verse 50) relates to the revolutionary upheavals of 1848. (This is Ponten, op.cit., plate 56.)

Fig.8 is an engraving of c.1500 by Matthäus Zasinger, or Zaisinger, a German engraver who signed his prints with the initials MZ, and who is thus often dubbed “the Master MZ” as a result. It is a Vanitas or Memento Mori print showing a nude woman standing on a skull (emblematic of Death) and holding a sundial (emblematic of Time, more usually represented by an Hourglass.) The message is no doubt one of the transience of female beauty. It is not clear why she stands on the skull, though the image recalls crucifixion scenes in which there is a skull at the foot of the Cross – as in Fig.9, Carlo Crivelli’s Crucifixion of 1490-1. Such skulls are a reference to Golgotha (a Place of a Skull – Matthew 27.33), possibly as a place of death and execution, but possibly also, via a complex series of associations, to Adam, whose skull was held to have been buried at Golgotha by one of the sons of Noah. (For this strange legend see John W. Wright’s Curious Facts, Myths, Legends and Superstitions concerning Jesus (1894), p.57-8.) The reference in Zasinger’s print may therefore be to Original Sin (Vanity), though it may also simply indicate that Beauty and Youth vainly consider themselves above Death and Time. Zasinger also produced an interesting series of so-called “Ars Moriendi” (Art of Dying) prints, designed to remind the viewer of the Sins that must be atoned for in order to escape the Fires of Hell. Fig.10 is the one representing Vanity, where various Devils tempt the dying man with Crowns, watched by praying Saints.

Fig.11, “Death and a Standing Nude”, is a relative of Fig.8 by Hans Sebald Beham (his HSB monogram is at the upper left, with a date of 1542 at the upper right.) Beham’s intention is made clear by the inscription “Omnem in homine venustatem mors abolet” which means “Death abolishes all Beauty in Man.” Note the Hourglass to the lower left, representing the ravages of Time. Beham also did an interesting engraving of “Adam and Eve” (1543) in which the Serpent is coiled inside and around the spine of the skeleton of Death (Fig.12). This, of course, relates to the idea that it was only through the intrigues of the Serpent that Death entered the World, and Man became mortal (see the notes on verse 58.)

Incidentally, Barthel Beham, Hans Sebald’s brother, produced a rather strange engraving, “Sleeping Child with Four Skulls”, shown here as Fig.13. The inscription “Mors omnia aequat” means “Death makes all things equal”, and thus relates to Death as the Great Leveller, who treats Rich and Poor, Young and Old, Powerful and Weak, with equal favour. Note, again, the symbolic Hourglass and compare Gallery 8C, Fig.13, Fig.14 & Fig.15.

Fig.14 is the earthenware plate referred to in the notes on verse 34. Its motto signifies that the plate, like its user, is made of Earth, and must return to Earth.

Fig.15 is an illustration of Petrarch’s “Triumph of Fame over Death.”, referred to in the notes on verse 14. The figure of Fame is in a chariot drawn by two Elephants who trample over the figure of Death. Fame blows on two trumpets, thus proclaiming the posthumous fame of the illustrious historical figures who walk either side of her chariot.  Some of these are named in the print – Julius Caesar and Plato, for example. As stated in the notes to verse 14, it is ironic that many of the classical figures named in Petrarch’s poem, and whose names were famous in his day – and indeed famous in 19th century England, in the heyday of a classical education – are no longer famous today. History is eating away at the optimism offered by Petrarch’s poem!