Unescapable death

Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

by Elizabeth Lev

In the late 12th century, Ubaldo Lanfranchi, archbishop of Pisa, returned from the Holy Land to his native city. As papal legate to the Third Crusade, he traveled with 52 ships, which he had filled with dirt from Mount Golgotha, the site of Christ’s crucifixion. He laid the soil between the Pisa cathedral and the baptistery, creating the Camposanto — the “hallowed ground” for the burial of the Pisan faithful.

An elegant Gothic edifice was erected on the spot a century later, and in due course the walls were covered with frescoes ranging from the crucifixion to the life of St. Ranieri, patron saint of Pisa, but none of these great works was a striking as Buonamico Buffalmacco’s Triumph of Death, painted in 1336 for the Camposanto.

At 45 feet by 16 feet, the fresco occu-pies an imposing space of wall, making it difficult for the viewer to step back and take in the whole. The story is gradually revealed as one moves along the wall. Approaching from the right, one sees a backdrop of a verdant glade speckled with oranges, a scene set for privilege and pleasure. Charming men and elegant women are enjoying a garden party, but amid the music and hunting, souls are turning from the chivalrous ideal toward darker, more sinful pursuits. Two women gossip while watching the young men court their companions. One women is succumbing to the amorous words of her suitor while her lapdog, a symbol of fidelity, nips at her hand. Two cupids appear to frolic merrily above the two potential adulterers, but upon closer look, they are holding two torches upside down, representing death.

Triumph of Death, Buonamico Buffalmacco,1336. Photo courtesy of Public Domain.

Stepping back from the picture, the viewer realizes what the carefree youths do not — death is everywhere around them: A tremendous battle is waging between angels and demons for the souls of the dead. Sinuous angels with brightly colored wings rescue the saved. One sports a tonsure, but the rest look like toddlers; their innocence has saved them. For the most part, the more developed bodies are of the damned. A man and woman are swept off by a demon, probably the fate of the handsome young lovers in the garden.

The month of November, when the days grow shorter and darkness encroaches faster, is traditionally the month when the Church remembers the dead and the fleeting nature of our mortal existence.

St. Francis of Assisi, who wrote The Canticle of the Creatures a century before Buffalmacco painted his frescoes, extolled death as worthy of thanksgiving:

All praise be yours, my Lord, through

Sister Death,

From whose embrace no mortal can escape.

Woe to those who die in mortal sin!

Happy those she finds doing your will!

The second death can do them no harm.

The numerous images of the Triumph of Death produced in the 14th and 15th centuries had as much to do with the mendicant orders and their preoccupation with eternity as with the Great Plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century, bringing the painful reminder of the tenuousness of human existence. They also served to reprimand the emerging class of wealthy merchants who were growing used to purchasing both comfort and pleasure, and thus distancing themselves from Christ’s teaching on poverty, chastity, and obedience.

When approaching the work from the left, the viewer sees a group of lords and ladies out for the hunt. Their jaunty hats and thoroughbred horses again evoke a world of indulgence and delight. The dapper little band is halted, however, by the sight of three corpses in varying states of putrefaction. The first bloated body is that of a noble, complete with red robes and ermine collar; the second corpse is sunken as worms begin to consume the remains, until finally there is nothing left but a skeleton.

A monk stands before the young people, who cover their noses and mouths in revulsion. He holds a scroll which once carried lines from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 10:10-12:

A king today is a corpse tomorrow. For in death the portion of all alike will be insects, wild animals and worms. The first stage of pride is to desert the Lord and to turn one’s heart away from one’s Maker. (New Jerusalem Bible)

Above the monk, anchorites live in the rocky cliffside, milking goats for nourishment, studying Scripture and suffering poverty with patience and love. They present an alternative to the distraction-hungry advantaged classes of the medieval urban centers: They live away from the world and, thus, closer to God.

Whether approaching from the left or the right, the viewer is inevitably drawn to the center of the work, where Death reigns triumphant. Corpses pile up at the foot of the anchorite’s mountain. Men and women, rich and poor, religious and lay — death comes to them all. Fancy garb or simple robes cloak the lifeless bodies whose souls, seen as children, are drawn from their mouths by angels or demons depending on their ultimate destination. Death, a wizened hag with bat wings, carries a scythe as she flies over the bodies. She is heading toward the unsuspecting youths at the garden party, all the while ignoring the group of old, poverty-stricken, disabled people beckoning her to come for them.

Two cupid-like figures unfurl a banner reading “Knowledge and wealth, nobility and valor, means nothing to the ravages of death.” It appears that Death is seeking out those with everything to live for, while ignoring those who are tired of life.

Death came for the fresco itself, when in July 1944, a bomb struck the Camposanto and destroyed the building, yet Buffalmacco’s fresco survived to admonish future generations.

One can only imagine the effect of this work on the Pisans who walked through the Camposanto praying for their loved ones, a supersized, surround-sound vision of the mercilessness of Death. At the same time, one wonders if an image that challenged the pursuit of the fleeting pleasures of the moment versus torments of eternity might be apropos for our present day and age?


You might also like More from author

Leave A Reply