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6 / Death

A page from the Ars Moriendi
A page from the Ars Moriendi
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Germany
Region: Europe
Date ca. 1466
Material Woodcut
Dimensions H: approx. 11 in. (28.7 cm.)
Location Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Credit Courtesy of the Library of Congress

expert perspective

Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Additional Resources

“Block Books—Digital Material from the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.” Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress Web site. http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/rosenwald-block.html.

Cust, Lionel. The Master E. S. and the ‘Ars Moriendi’: A Chapter in the History of Engraving During the XVth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898.

De Simone, Daniel, ed. A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books. New York; Washington: G. Braziller, in association with the Library of Congress, 2004.

Reinis, Austra. Reforming the Art of Dying: The Ars Moriendi in the German Reformation (15191528). Aldershot, Hampshire, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.

A page from the Ars Moriendi

» Unknown artist, Germany

The Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying Well) was one of the first runaway successes of the fifteenth-century printing business.

An instructional manual, the Ars Moriendi was accompanied by woodcut illustrations such as this image showing Inspiration against Despair. The text and images of the Ars Moriendi focus on the last rites of a dying Christian as practiced by the medieval Church. The main theme is the conflict between virtue and vice experienced by the individual on his deathbed. Directives offered by the manual exhort the dying man to choose the virtuous path, which will lead to divine grace and salvation.

The maker of this particular woodcut is unknown, but it is based on an identical scene engraved by the early German printmaker Master E.S. (active ca. 1450–1467). This image shows the dying man surrounded by saints who received God’s mercy after living in iniquity. St. Mary Magdalene holds her balm. St. Peter is shown with the rooster that crowed when he denied Christ. Dismas, the good thief, is shown on the cross. St. Paul falls from his horse and is converted on the road to Damascus. Above the man, an angel offers these consoling words: “You should not despair, by any means.” Meanwhile, lurking below the tranquil scene of blessing and forgiveness are two demons scurrying on the floor under the bed. Even as these creatures continue their efforts to lead the dying man into temptation, one admits, “Victory is not mine.”

In an age when sudden death was always a possibility, the Ars Moriendi would have offered the living, as well as those at death’s door, some hope that salvation was available to anyone who was willing to follow its instructions and embrace the sacred rites of Christianity.

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