Think Modern Life is Cruel? Try this Medieval Vision of Life and Death
A monumental painting that explores medieval fears of death and the afterlife
In the Italian city of Pisa, there is a remarkable wall painting.
Most people go to the famed city to see the “Leaning Tower”, but only a short distance away is one of the most beautiful cemeteries in all of the world, and inside this cemetery on display is this painting.
Triumph of Death is an enormous fresco, measuring around fifteen metres in width. It is an image full of drama and turmoil, a swirling cycle of angels, demons and Lady Death.
The overall subject of the work is the fight over the souls of the dead. As such, it gives us a fascinating description of how death — and what lay beyond it — was seen by the medieval audience for whom it was painted.
The Nearness of Death
Compared to our own time, death in the 14th century was an ever-present threat. High rates of infant mortality, numerous diseases, along with the constant possibility of brutal war, made Medieval life a demanding setting.
Such a reality naturally encouraged discussion over what lay beyond the Earthly life. What emerged was an increased focus on the purpose of a Christian life: to prepare for the afterlife by avoiding sin, performing good works, taking part in the sacraments, and keeping to the teachings of the Church.
Triumph of Death gives visual form to these imminent concerns, inviting viewers to contemplate their proximity to death and the transience of all Earthly things. Estimations date the work to the same time as the Black Death, which loomed large over Italy — Pisa itself was badly affected in 1348 — and was widely interpreted as divine punishment for sin.
Notice first the bottom-left section of the painting, which shows an encounter between an aristocratic hunting party on horseback and three corpses lying in coffins. If you look closely, you can see one of the hunting party pointing to the coffins whilst the…