Friday, December 2, 2016

The Medieval Hereafter

Book of hours hand colored illustration with gold leaf. Depicts Jesus Christ in the sky surrounded by two angels in blue, hovering above a group of the dead. A gold tower is to the left and a hell mouth is to the right.For those living in the Middle Ages, death was a constant presence: Plague, famine, war, and a lack of medical knowledge all contributed to high mortality rates among European medieval society, especially for those living in cities. Consequently, much of life was occupied by thinking about and preparing for death. The Church provided hope through its promotion of the afterlife, although the path to that blissful eternity was a narrow one. At the Final Judgment, upon the return of Jesus Christ, many souls would be forced into the mouth of Hell instead of being ushered into paradise. Given the inexorable approach of death, and the concerns of the living about what might come afterwards, many artists and authors from the Middle Ages to the present day have attempted to represent the lives and deaths of saints and sinners as well as imagining what life after death might entail.

Book of Hours illustration. Woodcut that depicts a monk and a skeleton side by side. The upper border features more skulls.
At Rauner, we're currently displaying an exhibit that explores representations of death and the afterlife, chiefly from medieval and early modern sources. The exhibit was curated in conjunction with the New England Medieval Consortium's annual conference, held here at Dartmouth College on November 19th. From now through January 27th, come visit Rauner's Class of 1965 Galleries and see breathtaking illuminations from our medieval books of hours, fascinating printed books made only a few decades after Gutenberg, and various representations of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, arguably the most important work about the afterlife that has ever been written in Western culture.

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