Death Portrayals in the 17th-18th centuries - Orbis Lituaniae

Death Portrayals in the 17th-18th centuries

In the early period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, no scenes either symbolising or portraying death are to be found, contrary to the situation in Western Europe, where the images of death portrayal abounded even in the Medieval Period. For the most part, death symbols started to be portrayed in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the 17th century, after the sudden popularity of tombstones, epitaphs and illustrations to publications of funeral sermons. In more general compositions, death is symbolized by withered trees, extinct cressets and other symbols.

“The reaper of life” disregarded both estate and age

From the end of the Middle Ages, Life Reaper has been regarded as the main symbol of death.  It was popularised by the compositions of Dance macabre (Dance of Death), prevalent in the fine arts of the 15th-16th centuries. The painting of Dance macabre, commissioned in the 17th century  by the Grodno Bridgettines church, conveys the main message, namely, that in death we are all equal, therefore the Reaper is shown as taking us all – men and women, children and old people, dukes, priests, noblemen, ordinary citizens and peasants alike – holding by the hand and leading the way to eternity.

This is the idea conveyed by the sculpture of the Reaper, moulded in St. Peter and Paul’s church in Vilnius. At the Reaper’s feet, insignias of various positions and caps of high-ranking Church hierarchs are shown scattered around. Once again, the message is the same – in death we are all equal.

The Reaper portrayed should not be seen as a means of intimidation, causing a person of ordinary sensibilities to fear forthcoming death. Most often, it should remind us of the inevitable – the Reaper comes to take human life. Death is called Life Reaper, therefore the most frequent attribute of portraying death is a scythe. Sometimes a scythe alone symbolizes Life Reaper, as shown in the Chreptowicz Epitaph (1759), installed in the wall of St. John’s church in Vilnius.

Death is also symbolically reminded by parts of decomposed remains (most often by a skull and bones).

However, unlike the skeleton, which conveys the meaning of the reaper, the message of an isolated skull is that a human body is temporary and erodable.

 In most cases, such skulls are used as decorative details to adorn tombstones or publications. Such a function is performed by the skull with two bones in the above mentioned Chreptowicz Epitaph or a tombstone to Samuel Pac (died in1629), installed in Vilnius Cathedral.

The sands of time and the gate to eternity

The gate is used as one more sign symbolizing death. This symbol is most often depicted in literary descriptions (e.g., “departed through the gate of death”), but can also be found in fine arts.

The motif of the gates is often depicted in the wooden carvings adorning funeral sermons, symbolizing the end of the Earthly road and the start of the Eternal road.

The deceased has to inevitably pass through the gates. The tombstone dedicated to the Jan Stanislaw Sapieha, Marshal of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (died in 1635) is erected as a portal, decorating the passage from the church to the sacristy. The meaning embodied in such a rare type of tombstone is also related to the symbolic transition to eternal life.

Yet another symbol related to death is a sand clock. It highlights the message that our earthly life is not endless. Human existence is fleeting and the “sands of time” will run out for every human life. For example, the illustration of the funeral sermon dedicated to Bishop Marcijonas Tryzna (died in 1643) shows a portrait of a deceased person leaning on the table. On the table we see a book, a Bishop’s mitre and a cross. One might think at first glance that this is a typical portrait, representing a high-ranking Bishop. We should not be misled, though. The Reaper with a sand timer, engraved on the left, attests that the Bishop’s earthly life has come to an end.

Angels and phoenixes as the helpers of the soul of the deceased

Portrayal of angels in Baroque art is a frequently encountered motif. However, it becomes more specific in the works of art related to death. In this context, angels are often portrayed with a trumpet in their hands, as if they were ready to herald the day of the Last Judgement. This is the angel we see on the tombstone of Mychał Bolesław Bispinko (died in 1787) in Ruzhany church. Purgatory and hell images are also encountered in the art in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, even though they are mostly aimed at an intimidating, or rather, a didactic effect.

Angels are portrayed in this context as intermediaries or helpers, liberating our souls from purgatory flames.

These are the angels “at work,” portrayed in the painting of “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Advocate of Purgatory Souls.” However, even more often little angels are used to convey the required mood. Depending on the need, such angels are shown sad and even crying, symbolizing the emotions accompanying bereavement. Two little angels leaning on the coffin are portrayed on the tombstone to Jon Stanislaw Sapieha (died in  1635). Mournful little angels can also be seen in the sketch of the sarcophagus, which was intended to be erected for Krzysztof Zygmunt Pac, Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (died in 1684).

Rarer symbols, related to death, can also be come across.

For example, resurrection and a successful flight to Heaven were portrayed by the phoenix, rising from ashes. In Christian iconographics it symbolizes the Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary.

The illustration of Kazimierz Leon Sapieha’s (died in 1665) funeral sermon portrays a phoenix rising from flames, carrying the nobleman’s portrait with him. A heraldic arrow, stuck into the phoenix’s leg, symbolizes the Sapieha’s coat-of-arms and testifies that the legendary bird is the deceased himself, ready to happily reach Heaven.

Mindaugas Paknys