Christo­pher Allen con­sid­ers mor­tal­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen

The Four Horse­men: Apoc­a­lypse, Death and Dis­as­ter Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne un­til Jan­uary 28

DEATH is the fi­nal re­al­ity of hu­man life, and not just for the ba­nal rea­son that we are all des­tined to die in the end but, more im­por­tantly, be­cause the finite­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity of our ex­is­tence in this world is what gives ur­gency, mean­ing and even no­bil­ity to hu­man life. Homer saw this, in The Iliad, with a burn­ing clar­ity. Mor­tal­ity is what lends poignancy to our ex­pe­ri­ence, grav­ity to our moral choices. The gods, be­ing im­mor­tal, live at ease, as he says. They have so lit­tle to lose that life for them is a com­edy tinged with oc­ca­sional melan­choly when a mor­tal of whom they are fond, like Sarpe­don, is doomed to per­ish.

In a sense, noth­ing is very real for the gods. But it’s all fright­en­ingly real for hu­mans, who have only one life in this world of light and not much to look for­ward to in the grey ex­is­tence af­ter death.

The Homeric heroes love life and strength and beauty, but their duty, their noble rank, and the po­si­tion in which fate has placed them leaves them no honourable choice but to face death with the courage be­fit­ting a war­rior. Hec­tor knows he will die but has no al­ter­na­tive. He must do his duty and de­fend his peo­ple as long as he can. It is the essence of the tragic vi­sion of life: hu­man dig­nity is res­o­lu­tion in the face of ab­sur­dity and it is, strangely enough, a dig­nity not avail­able to the gods.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of death in the me­dieval and early mod­ern pe­riod was very dif­fer­ent and would have been in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to Achilles or Hec­tor, or in­deed to the later clas­si­cal Greeks. In the first place, Chris­tian­ity de­pre­ci­ated the value of our earthly life, em­pha­sis­ing in­stead the eter­nity of bliss await­ing the meek, in com­pen­sa­tion for hu­mil­i­a­tions and suf­fer­ing en­dured in this world, and a par­al­lel eter­nity of dread­ful tor­ments for the wicked.

The im­per­a­tive of no­bil­ity was eclipsed by a cal­cu­lus of sin: even in Plato and Aris­to­tle, the pri­mary eth­i­cal ques­tion that a Greek asked was how to be­come good. Chris­tian phi­los­o­phy, based on Greek mod­els, the­o­ret­i­cally ac­cepted that good was a pos­i­tive value and evil merely a lack, but in prac­tice the life of Chris­tians be­came a con­stant anx­i­ety about the sins they had com­mit­ted and the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of guilt and even­tual pu­n­ish­ment they would in­cur — all ideas es­sen­tially for­eign to the clas­si­cal at­ti­tude, and rightly crit­i­cised by Ni­et­zsche as mor­bid.

Chris­tian anx­i­eties about death are the sub­ject of a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, drawn from the gallery’s col­lec­tions, and prin­ci­pally from the works on pa­per col­lec­tion, for mor­tal­ity and the af­ter­life were im­por­tant mat­ters for the new arts of print­ing and print­mak­ing that arose about the mid­dle of the 15th cen­tury and trans­formed the dis­sem­i­na­tion of knowl­edge and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of im­agery in the late 15th and early 16th cen­turies.

An­cient texts were pub­lished in their orig­i­nal lan­guages — there were fa­mous poly­glot print­ing firms in Venice, An­twerp and else­where — trans­lated and ac­com­pa­nied by ex­ten­sive com­men­taries, mak­ing lit­er­a­ture, phi­los­o­phy and sci­ence in­creas­ingly ac­ces­si­ble to in­de­pen­dent read­ers, in­stead of be­ing largely re­stricted to the mi­lieu of the univer­sity and trans­mit­ted through a mas­ter-pupil tradition. The Bi­ble, even more im­por­tantly, was printed in its orig­i­nal lan­guages, in Latin trans­la­tion and even in ver­nac­u­lar ver­sions, con­tribut­ing to the swell of reli­gious de­bate that led to the Ref­or­ma­tion.

The break-up of the church was the great­est catas­tro­phe of the 16th cen­tury. In the long run, the shat­ter­ing of Chris­ten­dom into op­posed and war­ring fac­tions has with­out doubt helped to un­der­mine reli­gious be­lief al­to­gether, but in the short term and, in­deed, for cen­turies to come, it pro­voked out­breaks of the kind of vi­o­lent sec­tar­i­an­ism that we see to­day tear­ing apart the Is­lamic world. Chris­tians, once united by a com­mon faith, were now di­vided into Catholic and Protes­tant, and then sects of Protes­tantism, and ever more bizarre cult groups con­tin­ued to ap­pear as late as the 19th and even 20th cen­turies.

Wars be­gan to break out about the mid­dle of the 16th cen­tury, rav­aging France in the en­su­ing decades and cul­mi­nat­ing in the hor­rors of the Thirty Years War (1618-48). At the same time, the tech­nol­ogy and prac­tice of war were chang­ing rapidly: can­nons, al­ready in use in the 15th cen­tury, were im­proved and be­came more mo­bile, so that they could be em­ployed as field ar­tillery and not just as siege en­gines. Me­dieval knights, with their aris­to­cratic val­ues and eth­i­cal code of chivalry, were be­ing re­placed by mer­ce­nar­ies who were in­evitably low-born thugs and, in the con­text of the Ref­or­ma­tion, could be reli­gious zealots as well.

The con­trast is made, with­out com­ment, in Al­brecht Durer’s en­grav­ing of a knight and a lan­squenet (from the Ger­man land­sknecht). The re­al­ity of this new kind of en­demic sec­tar­ian civil war is vividly il­lus­trated in the great se­ries of the Mis­eries and Mis­for­tunes of War by Jac­ques Cal­lot (1633). We see the army at­tack­ing vil­lagers, loot­ing, rap­ing and killing for sport. But we are also shown the be­gin­nings of mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline and ju­di­cial pu­n­ish­ment for these crimes. In one im­age, scores of mer­ce­nar­ies are hanged from a great tree. In an­other, a crim­i­nal lies on the wheel, a pri­est hold­ing a cru­ci­fix above his head and ex­hort­ing him to re­pent as the ex­e­cu­tioner smashes his bones with an iron bar.

It was a hard enough world, with the in­evitable suf­fer­ings of hu­man life, the dan­gers of child­birth and in­fancy, the threat of epi­demics, of droughts and other nat­u­ral dis­as­ters — and all this made worse, as we know too well to­day, by the gra­tu­itous folly of reli­gious big­otry. But in the reli­gious hys­te­ria of the time, even such earthly suf­fer­ings were dwarfed by the ter­ror of damna­tion, and this fear was ex­ac­er­bated by the fact each side be­lieved their op­po­nents to be heretics doomed to eter­nal fire. What if you were on the wrong side? What if they are right and you are the one go­ing to hell? Such nag­ging doubts can only be sup­pressed in the mind of the fa­natic by self-right­eous rage.

At the same time, the out­break of un­prece­dented en­demic war­fare and the ev­i­dent flour­ish­ing of heresy and false prophets — from which­ever side you looked at it — sug­gested we might have been wit­ness­ing the fi­nal col­lapse into vi­o­lence and chaos lead­ing to the end of the world and the Last Judg­ment. Hence a re­newal of in­ter­est in the last book of the New Tes­ta­ment, the Apoc­a­lypse or Book of Reve­la­tions, com­posed by the aged John on the is­land of Pat­mos and re­count­ing a se­ries of ter­ri­fy­ing sym­bolic vi­sions, all the more mem­o­rable for be­ing fre­quently ob­scure if not in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

The cen­tre­piece of the ex­hi­bi­tion, in­deed, is the ex­tra­or­di­nary se­ries of wood­cuts by Durer in the col­lec­tion of the NGV, il­lus­trat­ing each of the episodes of the Apoc­a­lypse. They are dis­played in­di­vid­u­ally around the walls of the gallery, but a set bound in its orig­i­nal book form is even more im­pres­sive be­cause im­ages that are mod­est in size on a wall seem rel­a­tively much big­ger, al­most over­whelm­ing in the vol­ume, es­pe­cially as they are de­signed to fill the whole page.

Among these fa­mous im­ages, the best­known of all il­lus­trates the four horse­men of the Apoc­a­lypse. Durer’s em­blem of de­struc­tion draws on the long­stand­ing me­dieval iconog­ra­phy of death, in which the em­pha­sis is of­ten on the un­ex­pected and cruel in­ter­rup­tion of the joy of life, and fre­quently too on the ul­ti­mate equal­ity of all hu­mans in the face of mor­tal­ity: popes, kings and princesses die as surely as peas­ants and sol­diers.

Some­times the dead, or those doomed to die, are shown grue­somely danc­ing with the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of death, as though to sug­gest that the process is un­der way within us in the midst of our plea­sures.

Witchcraft is an­other theme of the ex­hi­bi­tion, re­lated be­cause it was only in the cli­mate of height­ened anx­i­ety cre­ated by the break­down of Chris­ten­dom and the fail­ure of univer­sal be­lief that the para­noia about witches could arise. Witch-hunt­ing is con­tem­po­rary with the age of reli­gious wars and lives on into the 17th cen­tury, an ob­scu­ran­tist throw­back in the age of the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion. Witches be­came a mo­tif in pop­u­lar art ad­dressed to the su­per­sti­tious masses, but also ap­pealed to artists, from Sal­va­tor Rosa to Goya, who found in them a more gen­eral and sym­bolic mo­tif evok­ing evil and the ir­ra­tional.

The most be­nign im­ages of death, the fur­thest re­moved from any kind of ir­ra­tional fear or panic about damna­tion or black magic, are in the form of the me­mento mori, usu­ally com­bi­na­tions of still-life ob­jects meant to in­duce a philo­soph­i­cal med­i­ta­tion on the in­evitabil­ity of mor­tal­ity; Michel de Mon­taigne wrote a fa­mous essay at the end of the 16th cen­tury on the propo­si­tion que philoso­pher, c’est ap­pren­dre a mourir — that phi­los­o­phy is learn­ing to die — whose very


for­mu­la­tion shows that he is think­ing in hu­man­ist rather than reli­gious terms.

The skull is nat­u­rally a re­cur­rent mo­tif in these still-life pic­tures. Time and again it is the com­pan­ion of the scholar and the philoso­pher, most of­ten in the per­son of St Jerome, who is rep­re­sented here in a lit­tle paint­ing by Joos van Cleve as well as in Durer’s great en­grav­ing of the scholar deep in the re­cesses of his study. Death, in its most pos­i­tive role, is a re­minder to work and to achieve some­thing that may out­last our own short spans.

Per­haps the most un­ex­pected theme among the many rep­re­sen­ta­tions of death in the ex­hi­bi­tion is that the end of life may be a wel­come re­lief to the poor. Thus there is an en­grav­ing of an old woman by Wences­laus Hol­lar af­ter Hol­bein (c.1651) with the blunt motto me­lior est mors quam vita — death is bet­ter than life. Even more re­mark­able is an­other lit­tle im­age of death try­ing to de­tain a heav­ily laden ped­lar, ac­com­pa­nied by Christ’s words at Matthew 11:28: ‘‘ come to me all you who are weary and bur­dened’’.

It seems a lit­tle un­com­fort­able, to say the least, to iden­tify Christ im­plic­itly with death, and one has to ask to whom this mes­sage is be­ing ad­dressed. Small prints were not ex­pen­sive, but nei­ther were they pre­sum­ably go­ing to be pur­chased by a man as poor as this. Is the ap­par­ent con­so­la­tion meant in­stead for the wealth­ier classes con­tem­plat­ing the in­tractable prob­lem of poverty?

As for the ped­lar’s view of the mat­ter, it was prob­a­bly sim­i­lar to that of the old and penu­ri­ous wood­cut­ter of La Fon­taine’s Fa­bles (I.16). Ex­hausted by a life of labour, he calls on death, who promptly turns up ask­ing how he can be of as­sis­tance. Just help me get this load back on my shoul­der, the wood­cut­ter replies: suf­fer­ing is bet­ter than death.

The Four Horse­men of the Apoc­a­lypse

(1497-98) by Al­brecht Durer

Clock­wise from above, The Hang­ing (La Pendai­son) from the print se­ries The Mis­eries and Mis­for­tunes of War (1633) by

Jac­ques Cal­lot; St Jerome (1530s-40s) by Joos van Cleve (in the man­ner of); Of­fice of the Dead: The Three Quick and the Three Dead (c. 1475-80) by the Maitre Fran­cois

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