Death conquers all. Riches and rank will not save you. Even the Pope and Emperor (look in the tomb) will die and get eaten by worms. The Confraternity of the Disciplini of San Bernardino wanted us to know this. In 1485 they hired Giacomo Borlone de Buschis to paint this scene on the outside of their Oratory in the small town of Clusone, in Northern Italy. It happens that 1485 is also the date of the Battle of Bosworth, where Richard III, King of England, lost his crown on the field of battle and disappeared from history, only to turn up in 2011, buried in a car park in Leicester. This is just the sort of thing the Confraternity would like us to think about.
This picture is accompanied by a Dance of Death fresco, and another scene representing the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead. These images were not uncommon in Europe in the period, and especially in this area, but the survival of such a huge and spectacular example, uniting three interlocking themes is a very rare and special thing. I’ve got lots of other pictures. In fact, this fresco is so well known on the internet, that it seems a bit superfluous to write about it, but I will try and bring together some parts of the story that you don’t always find in one place – it will take me more than one post. I’m going to think about several questions – who and where were the Confraternity of Disciplini and why the interest in death; who are the Three Living and the Three Dead? I also want to blog about the Dance of Death and, separately, about the amazing interior of the Oratory.
Just for now, I will focus on the picture above, which is only a part of the whole. Death, as a skeleton, is wearing a robe and crown. In Italian, Death is a feminine noun, so that it is culturally correct to say that she is the queen of this world, to whom we all submit. This doesn’t make her evil. Satan is sometimes described in the Bible as the ‘prince’ or ‘ruler’ of this world (e.g. John 12. 31) because he competes with God for power over mortal souls. Death’s reign is different – for the Confraternity, at least, she serves God.
The scrolls surrounding Death spell out her powers; she is impartial and stronger than all; the ungodly will die with bitterness, but the godly and just will pass through the death of the body to eternal life. So Death plays a part in sifting the good and bad, in levelling the unjust distinctions set up in human life and bringing us to judgement. By the time of this fresco, Death was already established as the first of the Four Last Things; Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell. This gives us the first insight into the motivation of the Disciplini – meditation on Death frees us from the delusion of human wealth and power and helps us evaluate the true significance of mortal life as a stage in the journey to Heaven or Hell. If Hell is very bad, Heaven is very good, so Death is only terrifying to those who have placed all their confidence in worldly success.
This Death has two skeleton acolytes with rapid fire weapons which kill at a distance. The archer holds three arrows at a time – I imagine he fits them in quick succession, rather than all at once, but I am not an archer. On the other side, and early gun appears – the arquebus. All around lie corpses, mingled with dignitaries, religious and secular, who are dismayed by death and offer bribes. Even where they don’t have crowns or religious insignia, these suppliants are richly dressed; although death comes to the poor too, this is really a moral story about the vanity of riches and the humbling of those who trust in them. In spiritual matters, the Confraternity appear to have a preferential option for the poor, and part of their work was to minister to them.
In Renaissance Europe, religious Confraternities were everywhere. Some internet sites attribute this Oratory to ‘monks’, but members were mostly lay people. They bound themselves together to practice spiritual discipline (hence the name Disciplini) and good works. The Disciplini of St Bernardino were a 15th century foundation based in Bergamo, the Lombard city lying 35 km below Clusone, which is in the foothills of the Alps. Other activities associated at this time with Confraternities were education, including the staging of religious plays, and participation in religious processions in their distinctive long hooded robes.
Many of the Northern Italian Confraternities were flagellants, as this group were – they whipped themselves in public to demonstrate repentance and their disdain for the body. This practice can still be found in some Catholic areas of the Mediterranean today, and together with the faceless hoods, which now recall Klan costume, tends to make a negative impression on people from outside the culture. Like most things, it’s complicated. The Confraternities were crucial in providing spiritual ministry and charitable aid in towns and villages, in a time of great political instability. They despised the violence and luxury of the ruling classes, particularly, the factional strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines, supposedly supporters respectively of the Pope and Emperor, which fomented in-fighting, murders, coups and all-out war between the Italian cities. The faceless hoods were for self-effacement – their frightening associations come from later. Public self-flagellation, though, was always shocking; the Disciplini had an urgent mission, like radical protesters today. If they dwelt on pain and death, it was to save the population from worse miseries, including Hell, of course, but also, in this life, the wars and other miseries with which Italy was racked because of human disobedience, and, worse still, God’s powerful wrath in the form of plague.
So before I close this post with a bigger picture, scholars seem to agree in associating the rise of Italian Confraternities and their preoccupation with death with the coming of the Black Death to Italy in the mid 14th century. It was so devastating that it took a generation or more to cease to live in its shadow. The effects were as unpredictable as they were devastating: some areas suffered massive sudden mortality, while neighbours escaped lightly or temporarily. The Lombard region was worst affected later in 1361 and 1373, and outbreaks across Europe continued. The particular Confraternity active in Clusone was founded several decades after the major Lombardy outbreaks, but it belongs within a movement that began as a response to the horrors of the plague. The disruption across Europe was incalculable. The plague ran along the major trading routes. Even animals died – especially sheep – and humans who contracted the disease rarely lived more than three days. Scholars attribute all sorts of social changes to the consequences of plague, including the end of feudalism, the empowerment of women, and, indirectly, the Reformation.
The Church was disrupted by the plague and its consequences along with the rest of society. Many clergy died, and their places were hastily and inadequately filled or left vacant. Some of the traditional monastic institutions which performed both spiritual and charitable functions ceased to function. The Confraternities took on the job of plugging this gap. Their intense spiritual focus was also a reaction to the godlessness of the plague years when sick and dead had been abandoned, regular worship was thrown into chaos and when many, as Boccaccio chronicles, had responded to the fear of sudden death not by prayer and preparation, but with a hectic last round of worldly pleasures. The modern viewer probably hopes to live long and see few deaths, so coming across a giant painted skeleton is shocking in itself. This is not the intended effect. The original audience lived in a period where premature and violent death was common. The goal of the fresco was not to remind them that they would die, but to place Death in a proper perspective, queen of our mortal bodies, precursor to Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
Here is the big picture I promised. I can’t do anything about the lighting.
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