A renaissance of repugnance

King Death - Master of Death - Medieval Death
July 5, 1996

Michael Camille's last book was about images in the margins, about the drolleries and grotesques that appear, thumbing their noses and even mooning at the sacred subjects at issue in priceless illuminated manuscripts. In this new, magnificent volume, Master of Death, he has chosen a marginal subject, a painter whose name is known because a scribal instruction, left on a page orders him: "Remiet, make nothing here." Accordingly, the frame of that miniature remains empty. But Pierre Remiet's style, which Camille calls "performance", has a strong flavour in numerous other sequences of images, and several great illuminated volumes, made in Paris between c.1357 and c.1415 have been given to his hand by Camille (Remiet's dates are not known; the work is the only evidence for this long and active life). Camille confesses he had difficulty finishing his book, because he kept expecting to find more examples of his subject's art - a sheet showing Christ as a pilgrim turned up in Leiden "as the book went to press".

It is not surprising that Remiet has not become a landmark name in medieval art, in contrast to the Limbourg Brothers. Remiet worked in pen and ink outline, often in monochrome, and still very subdued when in polychrome; he places his figures in a repeated middle ground, in small scale, and tends to scrunch the features, and give their limbs a trembly, emaciated look. His patrons singled him out for grim work: for example, Eustache Deschamps's translation of Le Lay de la Fragilite Humaine, a work so misanthropic in character that had it not been written by a pope (Innocent III), it would appear rank heresy, a blasphemy against God's human image. Camille describes Remiet's work as "anti-courtly art of the highest order I a prudish painter of austere histories, a trusted and old-fashioned limner of the lugubrious, nothing too fancy, the only obscenities being those of death". In some ways he foreshadows, more than any other medium, the adult American strip cartoon, the electrified silhouettes of Krazy Kat.

Camille has written a learned and fascinating book about the condition of a painter whose chief patron, Louis d'Orleans was murdered in the street by his cousin, the Duke of Burgundy, his hand severed to prevent his body in death practising the maleficia he had perpetrated in life. Master of Death ambitiously attempts to meld current annales-type history, drawing on the ledger, panning with a fine-meshed sieve, with the more psychoanalytic and universal approach of the grand French theorists. Camille's use of gnomic quotes from the matres of "necrophilic poetics" (Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Emmanuel Levinas) remains forced, but he also muses fictively at intervals, through the eyes of the dying Remiet, and this story-telling rings with touching personal intensity.

Remiet's range of stories about death was remarkable: the obvious (Christ, Lazarus) concentrate his skills far less powerfully than unfamiliar figures from history and hagiography: a baby Julius Caesar emerges , naked, piping loud, from the stark, grey, naked body of his mother in a powerful illustration of the first Caesarean; Tullia rides over her father's corpse in one of the Livys Remiet illustrated - a bearded face, bespattered with a rain of blood rises up between her horses' hooves and the chariot wheels, larger than natural, a Gothic spectre before that brand of Gothic was defined. Remiet specialised in evoking the figure of Death, who, in accordance with French grammar, at times appears as La Mort, a terrible, haggard, lantern-jawed female, often fatter than the victims on whom she gorges. His nervy quill is perfectly suited for the depiction of squirming worms.

Camille opposes Johann Huizinga's view of the decadence of this "renaissance of repugnance"; he does not accept that the new taste for excess in the depiction of grisly and grue develops from heedless hedonism or the superficial pursuit of sensations fortes; nor does he accept that the interests of a journeyman artist like Remiet express the new realism. He is far too deeply in sympathy with the late medieval temper, and sees its violent fantasy and existential fatalism as very close to late 20th-century needs.

The complex tissue of this richness of thought - and its meanings today - are, however, much more clearly expressed in Paul Binski's succinct and eloquent study of the times' "necromania", Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. The salience of religion qua religion, and the centrality of the Christian faith to the understanding of mentalites have sometimes felt too close for comfort for historians (believers and nonbelievers alike), but Binski examines practices of death in medieval England, France and Italy with the eyes of the historical anthropologist; here is a culture that from the 4th century radically redrew the boundaries, brought bodies in from the fields of the Roman necropoles and re-established contact between the living and the dead in shrines and churches without fear of pollution, but rather in the hope of purification. It was a new religion that inaugurated a fundamental change of perspective when it set aside the emphasis on biographical memorial, as in classic necrology, and delineated instead the awe-inspiring drama of the afterlife, with its courtroom solemnity and its apocalyptic scenery. What had been a retrospective cult of the dead, inspired by clan interests and group identity, became an individual, prospective scheme, with some clear business overtones to the negotiations: by the 12th century, it was common for Christians to parcel out the bodies of the "very special dead", burying the heart of a king in one place, his hand or head in another, scattering the relics of saints far and wide in ever more fabulous reliquaries. The hunger for holy remnants inspired furta sacra: Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln bit off pieces of bone from Mary Magdalene's arm, preserved at Fecamp, to obtain relics for his church. Binski points out that belief in the active powers of dead bodies ran so deep that such thefts should really be considered kidnappings.

Because churches had not been designed as places of burial, space had to be found for bodily remains, holy and/or worldly: raised sarcophagi were devised that pilgrims could see and touch, underpaid clerics said thousands of masses in chantry chapels at the order of dead patrons; Purgatory, the prison sentence served by sinners, inspired the inflationary calculus of indulgences, intercessionary prayers and relics lampooned in the figure of Chaucer's Pardoner. But this conspicuous commercialisation of the after-life led to public affirmations of poverty and unworldliness: both Binski and Colin Platt, in King Death, his detailed, robustly argued survey of the impact of the Black Death on English society and architecture, chronicle the arrival of the flat, taciturn tomb laid in the church floor. Such modest graves declared the humility of the departed, worthy only of being trodden on. The innovation of naked burial expressed a similar exemplary contemptus mundi: Isabella, Countess of Warwick in the 15th century specified this symbolic gesture in her will.

It is as rare for a new affect to be named as a new planet, but the macabre is one such response, a particular flavour on the tastebuds that had probably existed but had not been isolated and identified before 1376, when the mysterious phrase first appears, in Jean Le Fevre's poem "Le Respit de la mort" ("Je fis de Macabre la danse"). All three historians review the idea of the macabre, and its instances in Dances of Death and the transi tombs that appear simultaneously and reveal the body of the deceased as food for the worms in the process of decay. But none hazards any etymological speculation.

The danse macabre on the walls of the Cimetiere des Innocents in Paris famously formed the backdrop for metropolitan scenes of picnicking and soliciting and revelry, and the subject became so popular that nearly 30 different editions of woodcut versions were illustrated and distributed throughout Europe, the most appallingly vivacious being Holbein's great sequence, showing King Death drumming and piping pope and pauper to the grave. The images are interesting, too, because in the terrific pageant of death levelling everybody, all kinds of occupations are incidentally recorded.

Both the transi tomb and the dance of death are concentrated in northern countries almost exclusively, and have been correlated with funeral rituals: where the face of the dead was covered, and the effigy showed an alert simulacrum, waiting with eyes open, feet out straight and drapery hanging vertically as if the subject were standing up, there image and art revealed the vanity of life, the concealed horror of putrefaction. But in the Mediterranean, where to this day the dead are exposed and touched and kissed by the bereaved, the repressed does not make the same kind of return.

Binski has seized on the problem of defining the uncanny potency of the macabre with the greatest gusto - and insight: "The reason this type of image of Death is so powerful - in the same way as the related genres of the Dance of death and of Death personified - is that it is intimately linked to the psychology of anxiety I By means of doubling or repetition, the familiar is rendered unfamiliar in a daemonic experience of estrangement . . ." He situates these mementos mori within the long-range view of subjectivity that Christianity held out, and then places them at the root of the development of the secularized individual identity: "The image represents a future state - what the subject will become - and so contributes to the subject's sense of self. In this case the thing that is constructed I is the notion of the sinner I The macabre implicates us in a mise-en-abyme, a hall of mirrors. And by means of its use of defamiliarisation, it offers the capacity for self-examination." He reminds us that many tombs were commissioned and made during the subject's lifetime: thus, Archbishop Chichele, founder of All Souls College, Oxford, may have contemplated the artistic progress of his own decomposing body on the tomb in Christ Church while he was still alive. These funerary monuments are "designed not to engender memory in the narrow sense", writes Binski, "nor prayer, but to provoke I the pondering of self".

Human predilection for ghastly images was pointed out early by Aristotle in the Poetics, as quoted by both Camille and Binski: "Things which we view with distress, we enjoy contemplating when they are represented with very great accuracy - the forms of the lowest animals, for example, and also of dead bodies." The reproductions in all three books will meet this appetite with abundance, but the British Museum Press should emulate Yale and UCL Press and provide a list of full details of images' dates and provenances. None of these authors quite settles the vexed question about the dynamic interaction of war, violence, pestilence, poverty and representation; where Binski sees the formation of a guilt culture led by philosophical ideas, Platt finds economic and demographic determinants: with special (and eccentric) animus, he factors in, as another variety of plague, the longevity of "rich old ladies". What emerges from all three is the sudden new-found expressive modernity of those times; even as we move further away in custom and belief from the rituals, from the masses for the dead, the cult of relics, and from the workshops that employed illuminators like Remiet, their products appear to reflect in ever sharper focus the convulsive entertainments, the horror vacui and the personal anxieties of the post-enlightenment.

Marina Warner's latest book is From the Beast to the Blonde.

King Death: The Black Death and Its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England

Author - Colin Platt
ISBN - 1 85728 313 9 and 314 7
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 262

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