The art of dying

The Ars moriendi was a literary genre widely read in most West European languages, and was very popular in England. The original long version called the Speculum artis bene moriendi (‘mirror of the art of good dying’) was composed in 1415 by an anonymous Dominican friar in Germany. The first chapter explains that dying has a good side; the second outlines the five temptations that beset the dying; the third lists the seven questions to ask a dying man; the fourth outlines the need to imitate Christ; the fifth addresses the friends and family; and the sixth comprises a set of prayers for the dying. A short version based on the second chapter, showing the temptations of the dying and remedies for them, was produced in illustrated books printed from carved blocks of wood, first dating from around 1450 in the Netherlands. The version here is from Germany, possibly Augsburg, circa 1470. There are 11 openings with full-page woodcut illustrations on the left and text on the right. Like others of its kind it offers spiritual comfort to the dying man, while also reminding the living vividly of what is to come. The image here shows a deathbed scene in which a dying man contemplates an image of the crucifix, tended by a priest bearing a candle. His soul (represented as a homunculus or miniature man) is greeted by the angels in heaven above, while some devils congregate below, visibly disappointed. The popularity of the Ars moriendi texts developed into a broader tradition of writing on the good death. In England, a tradition of consolatory death literature survived after the Reformation until the seventeenth century, for example in Jeremy Taylor’s books Holy Living and Holy Dying (1650-1). BC

Ars moriendi ([Augsburg?], [c.1470]).

CUL: Inc.3[4246], sig. 11v.

Further Reading

Nancy Lee Beaty, The Craft of Dying: A Study of the Literary Traditions of the Ars Moriendi in England (New Haven and London, 1970).

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