Danse macabre

Death and sinning were common scenes carved on medieval misericords as sculptors highlighted the world around them.  Sudden death was kept alive in people’s minds, not only through visual warnings of doom and damnation as seen in paintings and sermons preached in churches, but through the realities of life experienced by the frequency of famines and plagues.

The black death was a watershed in medieval history; the pandemic of bubonic plague spread through Europe including the British Isles by late 1349.   The impact of this was enormous and is reflected in an increased popular preoccupation with mortality during the late 14th and 15th centuries.

Images of mortality became more frequent than before the plague and are more explicit in their depiction of death.

The ‘danse macabre’ (south lower west 7 stall) images are a fine example of how the wood sculptor has captured death coming to all levels of society.

Death comes to the rich man
Death comes to the rich man

The main central image is full of detail with a rich man is sitting surrounded by his wealth.  There are numerous flagons on a table, with two money chests under the table.   There are buildings in the background and the man wears a long richly decorated coat.  He has a dagger lying across his knees guarding his possessions as death takes hold of his arm.

The moral of this image is directed at the wealth of merchants and the church.  The drama of death holding the man’s right arm with both skeletal hands is a reminder that death can come at any time. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins and money cannot save this man’s soul. 

The left hand supporter image is of an open mouthed death reaching out to a labourer who is pushing a broken spade with his foot.  The right hand supporter image is of death (his lower skeletal broken) laying his skeletal hand on the shoulder of an older man, a thresher with a beard who holds a broken flail in his right hand.  

The two supporters are very simple images in contrast to the intricate detail of the central image.   However they are tied together, the cord encircling the supporters and joining them to the central image. The social comment about mortality is clear.  Death comes to all and can come when least expected.    

Enid Davies (Assistant Archivist)

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.