On Halloween, Remember You Will Die.
I’ve never been big on Halloween. I’m more of a Christmas person, but Halloween is an opportunity to explore some of the creepiest Baroque art I can think of. Trust me, I’m sure there are spookier examples in Baroque than the following, but the work of Juan de Valdes Leal was the first artist to pop into my head. I also found a neat little church in Italy called the Chiesa dei Morti, or The Church of the Dead on Google. I know nothing about this church apart from what Atlas Obscura says about it… but it was definitely the creepiest thing I’ve seen today, so it deserves mention. Both of the works that I’ll briefly explore today are memento moris, or reminders that we will all die.
Juan de Valdes Leal painted Finis Gloriae Mundi as a pair with In Ictu Oculi for the Hospital of Charity in Seville. The first thing that jumped out at me was the eerie way he painted the skeletons. They’re almost too happy to be dead. Finis Gloriae Mundi, or The End of Worldly Glories is a vanitas meditation on the inevitability of death. In the foreground is a bishop skeleton, fully regaled. (I’m going to be non-academic for a moment and just say that the bishop creeps me out!) Near him is a nearly skeletal body – a figure dressed as a knight of Calatrava, possibly the patron himself. The three skeletons depicted refer to the medieval legend of the 3 living and the 3 dead. The 3 living come upon 3 skeletons who present them with the riddle, “What you are we were, what we are you will become.” Eerie. Can you figure out what it means? It’s clever and fairly self-explanatory.
At the top of the work, there is a hand holding a balance scale. The two trays of the balance are labeled in Spanish: Nimas & Nimenos, or Neither More Nor Less. Nimas, at left, weighs animals that represent the deadly sins: a peacock for vanity, a dog for anger, a goat for avarice/greed, a monkey for lust, a hog for gluttony, a sloth for laziness (or sloth, ha, ha, ha), and a bat perched on a human heart for envy. “Nothing more [than these] is needed for damnation.” In contrast, the Nimenos scale, at right, contains objects of penitence and mortification. A harp monogram for Jesus’ name is most easily seen, but the scale also holds a scourge, nails, shirt made of hair, (holy) books, and a rosary. These are the physical objects of salvation: “Nothing more is needed to be saved than what’s here.”
Our patron, Miguel de Manejara, was obsessed with death after he converted to Catholicism. In his 1671 book about his devotional life, he writes:
“The first truth that must reign in our hearts is dust and ashes, corruption and worms, the tomb and forgetfulness.”
Finis Gloriae Mundi and In Ictu Oculi were the first paintings you’d see as you walked into the hospital. In Ictu Oculi, or In the Blink of an Eye, is also a vanitas painting, a visual commentary on the shortness of life. Worldly jewels are shown strewn about the canvas: crowns, gold, swords, books. (An interesting side note: Scholars have identified what the books are.) The painting represents the ephemeral nature of earthly accomplishments, including the Papacy! Leal depicted the Papal cross & Papal tiara on the marble tomb in the center of the piece. They are two of several riches piled on the tomb. Other objects of desire shown include textiles, armor, jewels, swords – signifiers of worldly power. The skeleton rests his foot on the globe at the bottom right, perhaps signifying that death has its shadowy hold on the entire world. The painting, a pyramid composition, culminates with the skeleton’s hand, which is snuffing out the flame of a candle (life) “in the twinkling of an eye,” as the inscription directly above his long, bone-y hand tells us. The message? Be on your guard. Wordly treasures, possessions, and accomplishments will not matter in the face of eternity.
A more harrowing reminder of death lies in the Chiesa die Morti, or the Church of the Dead, in Urbino, Italy. It boasts eighteen mummies from the mid-19th century. According to Atlas Obscura, “a tour guide will be able to tell you how each of the mummies passed away.”
The Brotherhood of Good Death, a group founded more than 400 years ago in 1567, is responsible for the mummy display. The originals goals of the brothers were to provide free burial for the dead and keep a record of the deaths.
I’m sorry that this video is in Italian, but it has some great shots of the church and, if you understand Italian, it’s informative!
Happy Halloween! Keep eternity in mind.