While tricky to argue stridently against this characterization, it is only fair to remember other aspects of medieval Catholic culture which temper - or at least problematize - the popular image of the age as especially violent, intellectually backward and culturally static.1 The visual art produced in medieval Europe, often by the hands of church representatives, stands among the most clear and observable examples of the sensitivity and complexity of which medieval culture was capable.
I've been so enamored with the intricate and expressive beauty of medieval art for so long that I admittedly regard the Protestant Reformation as a woeful artistic cataclysm. Not only was the literal destruction of religious art en vogue in Reformation countries, but the religious aesthetics2 that subsequently emerged in them I find, if elegant, cold. Not only simple, but frequently dull. And very evocative of the emotional asceticism I generally dislike and distrust about Protestantism. (Physical asceticism is another matter...)
Living well after the Catholic church's western dominance, which directly precipitated the Reformation, I have the luxury of finding medieval Catholic art verdant, ornate and warm instead of decadent.
A page from the 14th-century de Lisle Psalter depicting scenes from the early life of Christ.
Its strange otherworldliness is evocative rather than lurid.
I am rather more sympathetic with the reformers' disdain for the hypocrisy of a wealthy church. But plenty of medieval Catholics were ambivalent about money itself, let alone the church's accumulation of it. I don't see this as uniquely Protestant. The apostolic "revival" of the 13th century, typified by the mendicant orders, saw plenty of popular movements reacting against the church's wealth. Granted the papacy had a lot to do with keeping these movements Catholic and not forcing them into a position of external protest.
In any event, this is all to observe that the Reformation, at the safe distance of all these centuries, has little emotional resonance for me, whereas the Middle Ages possesses much. My interest in European art and culture drops markedly following the 15th century. And the here-relevant offshoot of that is that I tend not to get very excited about early Protestant religious art or architecture.
Living in Massachusetts, one sees some of the dourest examples of this stuff all the time. Red brick churches, white steeples or, if you're lucky maybe some gray stone. House-like with a bell tower that may or may not be crowned by a steeple. Almost completely unadorned interiors, white walls, pale wood. They are well-made and not unattractive, but they are almost uniformly blank and bland. (You may find a little ornamental glass if you are very, very lucky...or if the church dates to the 19th century or later.)
Christ Church, an Episcopal church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, built in 1760-1.
King's Chapel (built 1749-54) in downtown Boston, with its strange crouching, somewhat brooding and blockish shape, has a slightly weirder exterior than the churches I'm thinking of...
...but its interior is one of the most flavorless.
The aesthetic bleakness seems to punish me for wanting something colorful or decorative, as if this desire represented a moral failing. I feel, every time I look at it and fail to feel something transcendent or even piquing, that the early Protestant aesthetic has judged me and found me depraved.
This is probably why the Puritan cemeteries of New England - charmingly and forthrightly called "burying grounds" - surprised and beguiled me so completely when I first saw one. Below, a view of King's Chapel Burying Ground.
And of Copp's Hill Burying Ground in Boston's North End, dating to 1659.
Photo by Nicholas Paskert.
The burying grounds themselves are usually grassy but not ornately landscaped, crowded with markers tilting at angles, some of which have been moved over the centuries. They are quite small by Victorian and modern cemetery standards. The real draw is the markers.
And the contrast between the host of boring churches up here3 and these early Puritan gravestones is utterly delightful and persistently weird. [The following gravestone photos all care of Nicholas Paskert.] The ubiquitous flying skull...
Strange garland-toting babies flanking an hourglass...
A skeleton snuffing a candle and a figure I take to be father time, holding another hourglass...
And, a particular favorite, death-as-scythe-wielding-skeleton riding a disembodied skull with hourglass. Yeah...
These gravestones are so image-laden, so strange and otherworldly. They look so damned medieval, but they are specifically not Catholic. One could even call them anti-Catholic as they sprang precisely from a culture that, back home in England, exercised rampant iconoclasm, found Anglicanism far too Catholic, and used "popery" and "papist" as terms of abuse. Where on earth then did this horde of flying skulls come from?
I did a minor amount of scholarly (and non-scholarly but well-considered) reading to try and answer this question.
The most intriguing treatment I found was by David Stannard in The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture and Social Change. It's an older work - 1979 - so I tried to read it with some healthy skepticism. But a number of Stannard's observations seem sound to my historically semi-trained mind. I think I mostly alit on his work because of the persistent and sometimes compellingly problematic way he uses the Middle Ages as a foil for 16th-to-18th-century Puritan culture in New England.
Medieval Catholic Europe in a fairly linear and causal way (as historical antecedents go) spawned the reform movements, including Puritanism, that would cleave the European Catholic church and eventually find unique expression in North America.
As mentioned above, these reform movements were a reaction against the corruption and perceived decadence of the Catholic church and, especially for the Puritans later, the Anglican church. Protestants crafted their identity as reformers up against the identity and practices of the Catholic church which, until the Reformation, could reasonably have been called "the church" at least in Europe (though it was neither the only nor oldest Christian church by a long shot).
So it makes a certain amount of chronological and relational sense to consider Puritan funerary art alongside medieval art. However, an explanation for their resemblance to one another must be sought, because a presupposition of dissimilarity makes more intuitive sense.
Religious and funerary art comprised a defining rift line between the two cultures. One might suspect medieval religious art could be viewed as a parent-in-negative to Puritan art rather than as some sort of weird cousin. To belabor this familial metaphor, if the Puritans were rebellious children, wouldn't their art look profoundly different from that of the "parent" they were rebelling against? For most Protestants, as I bemoaned at the beginning of this essay, this was true. The staidness and non-decoration of their art is a pretty obvious consequence of the floridity of Catholic art. If the Puritans were also austere iconoclasts who rejected Catholic imagery, why on earth did they - almost immediately upon arrival in the New World - begin adorning their tombs with skulls, skeletons, hourglasses and other memento mori normally associated with medieval art?
It may be helpful first to consider these themes as they occurred in medieval art.
Memento mori motifs and their focus on bodily suffering enjoyed famous popularity in late medieval devotion, literature and visual arts. Depictions of the Man of Sorrows (Jesus in his passion, suffering in a very human way), became more popular in contrast to the Pantocrator imagery of a wide-eyed and almighty Christ, which proliferated in the early Middle Ages and in Byzantium, but fell out of style in the later Middle Ages.
Below, the 15th-century Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows) by Master Francke, followed by the 12th-century Christ Pantocrator by the Master of Cefalù.
The cult of the saints had flourished since late antiquity but its preoccupation with relics, including bodies and bones, experienced a sort of boom period in the high and late Middle Ages. A 13th-century reliquary designed to hold an arm bone, below.
Transi tombs, while never the "norm" of elite burial, came into fashion in the late Middle Ages along with stories like the legend of the three living and the three dead. Corpse sculpture from the transi (or "cadaver") tomb of Jean, Cardinal de la Grange, and a de Lisle Psalter illustration of the legend of the three living and three dead, below.
As with any catastrophe, it's inadvisable to underestimate the effects of the "calamitous 14th century", but it is correspondingly easy to overestimate them. I am utterly unprepared to speak at length about the cultural/aesthetic consequences of comparative large-scale disasters, but it does intrigue me that no other event or set of events in western history are famously characterized as having caused morbidity.
To take a comparable event, the 6th-century Plague of Justinian - while it unarguably had massive and long-term affects on the eastern Mediterranean world - did not signal a new macabre-ness in Byzantine art or culture.
In a more tenuous, but I think still on-point comparison, artists coping with the fact of and fall-out from the Holocaust produced some disturbing and dark works of art 4, but the collective cultural response to that horror is not considered peculiarly morbid. My impression is that it is considered appropriately macabre; in other words, not unusual or to be explained, but self-evident.
This is not the case with medieval morbidity, which often gets spoken about in that weren't-they-so-very-weird-and-superstitious tone which flattens the humanity of medieval people and renders them caricatures of qualities we moderns deride and of which we claim ourselves to be devoid.
A kind of pop-culture "common sense" explanation for morbidity in medieval is sometimes propounded by more general reference to the violence, disease and short life expectancy germane to the Middle Ages. But again, why didn't these factors (common in most pre-modern and many modern civilizations) turn countless other cultures into decay-obsessed death ponderers?
I hope it's clear by now that I do not buy these simplistic explanations of any medieval (so-called) preoccupation with death. I am also not sold on the idea that, if their art was morbid (i.e., concerned with disease and death), the Middle Ages were especially death-obsessed. I believe instead we are reading their images according to our own standards, and thereby misunderstanding their emphases and intent.
While a medieval person probably felt a frisson of revulsion when regarding an image like Matthias Grünewald's "Dead Lovers", (c. 1470, Strasbourg, Musee de l'Oeuvre de Notre Dame, France), I think to equate their regard to something like we feel watching a horror movie is off base.
A medieval person would have been considerably more familiar with the sight (and smell) of decaying animals, including people. I wouldn't argue exposure led them to be desensitized to the grotesqueness of rotting flesh or the sadness of death...though perhaps more tolerant and expectant of it.
However, I would argue that we in the West today are so insulated from bodily death by our own institutions and customs that (barring wartime scenarios, from which most of us are also well-insulated) the site of an actual dead body would be, first and nearly to the exclusion of other responses, shocking. We have replaced an actual relationship with our actual dead, with...nothing really. We primarily experience death in hyperbolic film and gaming landscapes built expressly for entertainment. Moreover, those deaths are usually murder; justified in the case of action-adventure movies and video games, played for the scare in the case of horror films. Death's attendant decay we seldom experience at all, unless we are particular fans of zombie movies.
I feel safe assuming a medieval person would have looked at Grünewald's picture without this layer of unfamiliarity and also lacking the entertainment "noise" with which we have trained our responses. This is not an image of lurid horror, but perhaps one of instructional horror. Art in the Catholic Middle Ages was frequently a focus for meditation. And death was seen as a precursor to an afterlife; a crucial liminal moment for the human soul, worth meditating upon.
This is where Stannard's assessments seem most compelling to me. By his reading, medieval culture was not obsessed with death so much as it was obsessed with life after death. And the medieval proclivity for showing bodies in decay pertained in part to the idea of resurrection and concern for the state of one's body after death. All of those decaying bodies and memento moris do, to a certain extent, represent fear of death and fear for one's soul, but equally they express a recognition of the unavoidable end to all human life on earth, regardless of status while on earth.
These images also concertedly relate to the concept of contemptus mundi - or contempt for the world; a motif and idea popular during the Middle Ages which saw life on earth as a pale and corrupt imitation of the beatitude of the hereafter. Flesh rots, but the soul lives forever.
It seems sound then to regard medieval artworks that depict death as reminders of the flimsiness of life, but also as expressions of that flimsiness with a view to celebrating what is more enduring and important (according to Catholic theology): one's eternal soul.
Stannard actually describes the medieval attitude toward death as optimistic, asserting that this intense focus on the afterlife and cultural disdain for worldly things was its "principal weapon against the fear of death" (19). The increased medieval focus on the afterlife and resurrection, he argues, is what led to the rise in preoccupation with depicting the dead.
Considering these hypotheses and observations about medieval morbid art, what then do they mean to Puritan funerary art in the New World? Did 17th-century Puritans in New England think about life, death and afterlife in a similar fashion when they commissioned a deathshead for their loved one's grave? And how did they reconcile that depiction with their faith's traditional rejection of figural art in religious settings?
The Puritans of New England and the Catholics of medieval Europe did share harsh physical realities that made death omnipresent. Stannard makes quite a lot of these realities and their effects on Puritans from very young ages by studying journals, letters and didactic works for children. They also shared the distrust of worldly things and a focus on the afterlife. For him, the big divergence between Puritan and medieval theology, at least insofar as it relates to practices of death and burial, concerns specific beliefs regarding both the afterlife and the here and now.
Per Stannard, belief in predestination rendered the afterlife a stressful and emotionally fraught topic for Puritans. He observes, "At the heart of the Puritan's introspective experience - and few other experiences were so important to him - was the matter of the attainment and recognition of saving grace." (72) Stannard describes a culture of individuals who regularly racked their consciences and minutely scrutinized their thoughts and behavior to look for signs that they had been saved or, alternatively, that they were destined for Hell. He continues, "...the devout Puritan constantly examined himself and assailed all evidence of impurity, filling journals and diaries with interminable exhortation on the depravity of all men, but most importantly himself...The Puritan faith...was...marked by a never-ending, excruciating uncertainty." (75)
In contrast to this, it's small wonder that Stannard called medieval theology "optimistic". So the afterlife for Puritans was a source of individualized and internalized fear. But they apparently still retained some of the "traditional Christian rhetoric of viewing death as a release and relief for the earthbound soul." (79) He identifies this ambivalent duality in "virtually every Puritan funeral sermon or other discourse on the subject." (77) As one example, he cites a work by Cotton Mather entitled, Death Made Easie and Happy, which sounds pretty optimistic but is apparently still full of dread. As Mather writes, "Let us look upon everything as a sort of Death's-Head set before us, with a Memento mori written upon it."
Compared to the probable medieval responses to death in art that I've hypothesized above, Mather's view contains a shrinking horror of death; one possibly closer to our own. So in regard to the afterlife, even while some of the death imagery looks the same, medieval and Puritan art was likely generated by different concerns and received with different emotions.
In addition to varying relationships to the afterlife, Stannard identifies a more worldly and here-and-now set of concerns that differentiated medieval and Puritan attitudes regarding death. Essentially, the Puritans were idealists, embarked on a social and spiritual project of great ambition. The New World Puritans most especially were attempting to create a society that lived and functioned according to God's law (however they interpreted that). They used education, harsh punishments and emotional asceticism to do it.
This somewhat radical re-envisioning of society was not a component of medieval thought. Stannard calls the Middle Ages "bereft of both formal social criticism and utopian dreaming" (39). He is primarily speaking about the medieval habit of looking to precedent and tradition for solutions, which is fair enough. But he underestimates the potency of thinkers and nonconformists in the period who may have looked to the past for lessons, but who nevertheless acted and thought in quite novel ways. I think of the Cathars, the mendicant orders, of Christine de Pizan and Peter Abelard. While none of these are precisely revolutionary or utopian, they are radical and idealistic.
So I don't appreciate the way he dismisses the transformative social and intellectual currents of the Middle Ages, but his point as it pertains to Puritans is well taken. They were trying to model purity and "right" behavior on an individual and communal level and with no small amount of literal-mindedness. And they were doing this in a way that diverged from the Protestants back in Europe.
The fathers of Reformation thought, Desiderius Erasmus and John Calvin, both took issue with (among other things) contemptus mundi and the value Catholic thought placed on withdrawal from the world. Early Protestants viewed the world as God's handiwork, something to be lived in and appreciated, not withdrawn from. (25-26) But Puritans, a reform movement within a reform movement, took a dimmer view of the world based on their focus on humanity's fall from grace.
They developed a bleak vision of human history which, according to Stannard, they saw as "one long descent into ever-deepening depravity ever since the betrayal of Adam and Eve." (39-40) With that cheery regard for humankind and its world, they drifted back toward medieval contemptus mundi, but without the afterlife optimism. They denigrated the idea of Purgatory, which was gaining ground back in Europe even among Protestants, and clung more firmly to their doctrine of torment (or, charmingly, the doctrine of endless punishment) and predestination; that is, to the ideas that a person is either saved or not saved, there's nothing to be done on earth about it, and if you're not saved, you are going straight to Hell where your soul will consciously suffer torture eternally.
These healthy, life affirming beliefs obviated the need for elaborate funeral ritual. As Stannard explains it, "[T]o the Puritan the soul of the dead person had flown to its appointed fate, and the corpse that remained behind was but a meaningless husk." (100)
In England, and initially in the New World, Puritans eschewed all funerary ritual, paid very little attention to the body in death, and discouraged open displays of grief. While this accorded with the Puritan theological view of the primacy of spiritual over worldly things, in practice it proved hard to take and of little comfort to the living. Stannard asserts persuasively that the introduction of grave art (winged skulls, skeletons with scythes, et al.) constituted a kind of backlash against the meanness of Puritan burial practices.
For reasons relating to their isolation, only the New World Puritans began livening up their funeral practices. English Puritans remained anti-ritual and anti-image. While in the New World carvings on headstones, of the kind under consideration here, became popular in the 1650s. By the early 18th century, Puritan funerals had grown much more elaborate. As Stannard observes:
In virtually every respect - in the care and handling of the dead, the nature and expense of funeral and burial procedures, the timing and content of the funeral sermon, the intrusion of death into the religious sphere of their lives, and the symbolic and iconographic marking of the individual's mortal remains - the New England Puritans ritualized death as only the most non-Puritan of pre-Restoration Englishmen would have dared do. (117)He explains this change by reference to the theories of archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, who observed that the least stable societies possess the most elaborate burial practices. And Puritan New England was indeed unstable. In 1689, British Parliament passed the Toleration Act, which allowed dissenters from the Anglican church their own places of worship in England. This fundamentally changed the dynamic of the religious struggles that had sent Puritans packing to the New World in the first place. Again, Stannard says it well, "New England became...not the vanguard of Protestantism, but an isolated remnant." (124)
This increasing irrelevance had a significant impact on a culture that was, as noted, utopian and future-focused in nature and at inception. And they were not only growing irrelevant in the context of the religious wars back "home" in England. In New England as well, Puritanism of a dogmatic and idealistic sort lost ground throughout the 18th century to mercantile interests, a disturbingly worldly concern if you were a traditionalist.
Stannard believes these destabilizing changes, challenging to traditional Puritan ways of life and thought, caused the proliferation of both grave art and funerary ritual in New England. And, as I've laid out, he argued that Puritan theological beliefs and anxieties determined the forms the art took. They surely must have influenced it, but I think a few things worth noting here.
First, is that in pondering the interiority of a medieval or Puritan person (or a living modern person, for that matter), one cannot equate elucidated, "official" belief with people's every day emotional realities or behaviors. William Gilson, author of a thoughtful piece about Puritan funerary art in the New England Review, observed:
[T]o see [Puritans] as doom-crazed extremists of predestination and intolerance - as they have often been seen - is to make caricatures. The best of their writings are rich with thoughtful probings, extended reasonings, fresh metaphoric flights, eccentric perspectives, richly original language. (87)It's tricky, but worth the effort, to avoid making caricatures of past people based on a discrete set of artifacts: their official stated religious beliefs, their art, their writings.
Second, is that art is both a cultural and an economic activity; just as it can be seen as "representative" of a group of people, but is ultimately created by individuals. A lot of attention has been paid in this essay to the religious and broad cultural influences that might have influenced Puritan funerary art. But some regional scholarly work has also been done to identify specific stone carvers and how Puritan grave art spread around New England as an example of a commissioned commodity. Both the craftspeople and the buyers contributed to this funeral economy.
According to Gilson, the earliest identified maker of these gravestones is known as the "Charlestown Carver". He was the first professional stone carver in the Boston area (active in the late 1600s) and "seems to have been the person who transferred the basic gravestone form, as it had existed in England, to New England...He established much of the basic visual vocabulary," (94) including the skulls, creeping foliage, humanoid faces, etc. He also seems to have taught at least 3 of the region's subsequent carvers whose names are known.
There's a certain amount of idiosyncratic aesthetics and craftsmanship, as well as market demand, that would have influenced what the Charlestown Carver brought with him from England, what he might have created or innovated once here, what his customers were willing to pay for and what his apprentices carried forward from his practice.
In short, I am skeptical to what extent any of the foregoing considerations "explain" the appearance of medieval-resembling art in Puritan burial grounds, or explain the frank portrayal of the dead and dying in art of any culture.
Modes of artistic expression fit poorly into causal explanations that treat them like components of an equation:
hard physical lives + afterlife-based theology + social instability = depictions of death in art
Which is not to say these components do not have some relationship with and affect on each other, but mathematics has not devised symbols capable of discussing those relationships and affects. For that matter, language hasn't developed the vocabulary either. That's one of the "problems" with visual art; it is created in a nonverbal mode to discuss things nonverbally; and the only mathematics that play a part relate to how the artist's hand makes a form or what a viewer perceives of the form, not why the artist makes it or how the viewer feels about it.
And so I dance around these topics, I guess. Using Stannard's observations about Puritans and the Middle Ages to help explain the Puritan art of New England, while acknowledging that nothing can wholly explain the art of Puritan New England (or any other place).
I'm mostly left with my gut aesthetic response to Puritan and medieval art, which is love and fascination. I also can't escape from meditating upon the wild ease and comfort of my modern western educated middle-class lifestyle...and from being grateful that I was not raised to believe that humans and the world are inherently sinful and that, likely as not, I'll end up in a place of eternal suffering. So thanks for that, Mom. I'm pretty sure that has saved me some severe neuroses, but did not prohibit me from creating morbid art of my own.
Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Gilson, William. "Stone Faces." New England Review, 30:4 (2009-2010): 79-101.
1. It also does us good to question our image of our current age as some sort of medieval diametric opposite: i.e., especially non-violent, intellectually progressive or culturally dynamic. In the U.S. especially, the latter two comprise a purported national identity I think it would be wise not to take for granted. And to imagine we are especially non-violent is outright laughable.↩
2. I here regard religious aesthetics as separate from secular aesthetics, which is a somewhat erroneous distinction even with regard to Protestant cultures, which Westerners now regard so commonly as somehow more "secular" than other religious cultures. I intend mostly to omit the works of the Flemish Renaissance from my consideration. In this essay I am speaking primarily and broadly about religious architecture and religiously-determined (e.g., funerary) art.↩
3. I know, I know. Their non-adornment is intended to turn the worshiper's attention inward. They are meant to be dignified and neat, unpretentious and thereby graceful. I guess I can even agree that they are. But Boston's Old North Church, par exemple? Bo-ring
[image of Old North Church].↩
4. The poem "Todesfuge" by Paul Celan and Jerzy Kosinski's novel The Painted Bird both jump out to me as examples here, each containing grisly and hauntingly morbid imagery, dealing in bodily ways with themes of genocidally-motivated murder.↩