Gruesome Medieval Images That Rekindle Our Fascination With Death

After The Black Death reduced Europes population dramatically, a new artistic trend was born.

If you travel back in time to the Middle Ages, try to smell as bad as possible before you get there. Not having a terrible body odor could get you killed, since you'd be accused of witchcraft or heresy. If something absurd like that doesn't get you killed, millions of other things will. It's no surprise that the artists of the time were obsessed with death. After The Black Death (a plague that arrived through rats and their fleas around 1347) reduced Europe's population dramatically, a new artistic trend was born. It focused on death and everything related to the process of dying and the afterlife. The purpose of the artwork was to remind people that they were going to die, in case everything else in their lives didn't do so.


In the Middle Ages, existing, in general, was dangerous. Think of the risks of traveling, freezing to death, and not being able to receive an already questionable medical treatment. Think of the impending bad weather, famine, malnutrition, and sickness, not to mention the very beginning of life, which was dangerous and frequently deadly. Childbirth often killed the mother, the baby, or both during or days later due to infections and complications. With those things and more in mind, artists depicted not only skeletons, but also rotting corpses in various stages of decay in their paintings. When life was hard to handle, decomposition became an attractive artistic subject.


The natural world was dangerous, but other humans were a constant threat as well. The daily life of Medieval people was full of violence. It came in many forms: fights in the streets and taverns, uprisings and rebellions of peasants against lords, disputes over land and money, assault, rape, murder, as well as the occasional war. So, given the multiple ways to die that were available, painters didn't want to stick to rotting corpses alone. The decaying bodies had the company of the animals that inaccurately feasted on them. Also frogs and snakes appeared on the paintings, because they morbidly made people think about evil and death.


The artists of the time not only wanted people to contemplate death, but to accept it. Given the constant possibility of sudden death, acceptance was necessary. In such an environment, being perpetually alert and fearful wasn't helpful at all. The idea of dying had to be something to befriend. So, for people to project their attitudes about death, artists painted reluctant characters that wanted to escape it, who were afraid of it, or unwilling to give in and be taken away from this earth by the skeleton that represents it.


The Medieval period was not a great place and time to have an opinion. Disagreeing with anyone was problematic, but disagreeing with the Church brought exile, persecution, and, of course, death. Heresy wasn’t a fun activity. Then, of course, religion played a part in the paintings. If there was a sinner on the deathbed, demons were always near them, waiting for them to die and ready to take them.


We’re all going to die. That’s a fact. Why be sad about it? Why evade the subject? We don’t have to talk about it all the time or fill our homes with death-themed decoration. But impending death is the one thing we all have in common and will bring our differences together in the end. Artists expressed that idea with the "Dances of Death". In those images, death is a joyful party of dancing bones inviting you to join them.


We have to admit that the idea of dying is what makes life and what is happening in front of us more exciting. When we’re bored, we probably think we have all the time in the world. The truth is that we don’t, and sometimes we need a drawing of a skull in the street to remind us of that.


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