Monday, July 18, 2011

Dance of Death

At present there's a season of films by the Swedish film-director Ingmar Bergman being broadcast on Channel 4. Included in the season is Bergman's classic film, 'The Seventh Seal' (1957). Early in the film one of the most iconic images of cinema is depicted, the figures of  Death and a Knight playing a game of Chess by the sea. 'The Seventh Seal' makes several such references to the 'Dance of Death', a frequently-worked theme by the medieval artist. 

It was during the Medieval era that the Black Death occurred. The pandemic reached its peak in the years 1348-50 and is believed to have devastated Europe's population by an estimated 40-60%. In addition, high infant mortality, poor sanitary conditions, crop failure, war and famine resulted in a short life for many. Because death was ever-present in the lives of all strata of medieval society, the 'Dance of Death' became a frequently-worked morality genre for artists, featuring in mystery plays and printed wood-cuts; however the sole surviving medieval stained glass depicting the 'Dance of Death' in England can be found at Norwich, in the church of Saint Andrew's.

The city of Norwich was once famous for the artistry of its stained-glass. In fact the city had a flourishing and distinctive school of glass painting during the 15th century. Characteristics of 'Norwich School' stained glass include excellence of drawing and colouring, motifs of ears of barley and patterns using seaweed and chequers. The Saint Andrew's glass uses the chequer pattern allegorically, perhaps as an allusion to the game of chess. According to the expert Christopher Woodforde the fifteenth century glass craftsmen of Norwich -

'avoided the suggestions of sweetness and sentimentality which mars some contemporary work….there is a bracing strength and vigour which well accords with the Norfolk climate and character'.

Throughout the county of Norfolk and in several Norwich churches superb examples of medieval stained glass can still be viewed. In Saint Andrew's stained glass window dated circa 1510, the figure of Death is seen leading a bishop by hand to his death. The message of medieval  'Dance of Death'  imagery being that all levels of society, whether pawn-like peasant, knight or bishop, are under the rule of Death.

Wall mural north of Stockholm circa 1480 


Tuirgin said...

Seventh Seal was my first Bergman film, and maybe one of the first two or three art films I'd ever seen. Bergman is always compelling. His Winter Light is a movie that made a huge impression. On seeing it, one thought was that it is a movie everyone in any kind of pastoral role should see repeatedly. Another was the thought that any faith group which cannot successfully address despair or doubt is worthless.

Anyway, thank you for this. Beautiful stained glass. Modern glass can be so utterly ugly in its pandering sentimentality.

-E- said...

i'm glad you told me about this bergman fest. i'll have to catch some of the ones i haven't seen.

teegee said...

I agree heartily with Tuirgin. And of course Bergman was raised by a pastor father. I didn't know, however, that there was a chess mural, death and a knight, near Stockholm, nor that Norwich had glass with the same chess-game motif. I guess I assumed that Bergman thought of it himself (but of course that would be unlike him). I think I must see that film again; I only saw it when it was new.
Excellent post.