Ars moriendi – the Art of Dying


johann-hobingi-epitaafi-detailJohann Hobing, Pastor of St Nicholas’ Church on his death-bed. Johann Hobing’s Epitaph. Detail. Ca 1558. Art Museum of Estonia

The exhibition “Ars moriendi – the Art of Dying” concentrates on the memorial, funeral and sepulchral cultures of the medieval and Early Modern periods, focusing on the reflection of these topics in the ecclesiastical art of the periods.

The exhibition includes and explains the tombstones, epitaphs, coat-of-arms epitaphs and other works of ecclesiastical art displayed in the Niguliste Museum. Artefacts of cultural history cast light on funeral traditions and customs. Among such objects are various coffin embellishments from the Middle Ages through the 18th century, metal coffins and funeral regalia, e.g. armour helmets and the gold brocade death coat of Fabian von Fersen, buried in the Tallinn Cathedral in 1668. Visitors can view an almost four-and-a-half-metre-long magnificent engraving from the end of the 17th century, depicting the funeral procession of the Swedish king Carl X Gustav, as well as a rare mechanical figure of Death from 1666, which once decorated a large clock in the chancel of the German church in Narva.

Within the framework of the exhibition, a film collage of the representation of death, dying and the afterlife in Estonian historical feature films is presented. The geography of the afterlife and the different destinations in the hereafter have been illustrated with the help of an educative floor map in the chancel of St Nicholas’ Church.

Death is an inseparable part of life; however, our understanding of death, the afterlife and their meaning has changed through the centuries. During the medieval and Early Modern periods, people had a much more direct and real relationship with death than nowadays. Death was not the end of life; rather, it was the start of a new journey. The final destination of a human soul was largely dependent on how he had lived his life, his actions and decisions. An easier path to heaven was paved with the help of donations to churches, good deeds, letters of pardon, masses for the dead and prayers. While during the Middle Ages the church was the intermediary for one’s access to heaven, according to Lutheran belief it was solely faith that determined the ultimate fate of a human soul.

For centuries, churches and cemeteries have been places for the co-existence of the living and the dead. The deceased were physically present in this space in their burial sites and could spiritually be perceived through the works of memorial and sepulchral art that represented them.

Preparing oneself for death was a part of human life. It was believed that one’s manner of death played a momentous role in one’s journey in the afterlife. The medieval preparations for death and the traditions related to dying were outlined in the treatise “Ars moriendi, or the Art of Dying”. The text, widespread from the beginning of the 15th century, offered consolation and guidance to both the dying and those attending them.

The title of the exhibition, “The Art of Dying”, paraphrases the original meaning of Ars moriendi, and the exhibition focuses primarily on the visual representation of the culture of death, funerals and commemorating the dead during the medieval and Early Modern periods, conveyed by works of art donated to churches and funeral regalia. Commissioning altar retables, church silver and other works of art and donating them to churches often indicated a wish to ensure oneself a better journey in the afterlife. It also served to commemorate a person and to encourage mourners to pray for the soul of the deceased. The most characteristic works of Lutheran sepulchral art are epitaphs and coat-of-arms epitaphs, primarily created to honour God, decorate the church and commemorate people. Tombstones, marking burial sites, are the most direct expressions of the visual tradition of the centuries-long commemorative and funeral culture. The size and design of a tombstone expressed the status of the deceased, as well as reminding the living of their own mortality.

Funeral regalia present an idea of how magnificent the funerals must have been, referring to the status of the deceased and representing funeral traditions. The funeral ceremonies of royalty and noblemen involved all layers of society, as mourners and spectators, in such ultimate spectacles of one’s last moments on earth. The funerals of common people were much simpler and more modest.

The historical framework of the exhibition starts in the Middle Ages and ends with the 18th century, embracing visual material both from the Catholic and the Lutheran eras. The transition to Lutheranism during the first half of the 16th century is primarily expressed in changes in the meaning and use of commemorative art and alterations in pictorial programmes. The end of the 18th century marked a significant turn in the local sepulchral and commemorative culture. The decree of Catherine II from 1772 forbade church burials and declared that new cemeteries were to be established well away from dwellings. In ecclesiastical space, this meant an end to the visual elements related to funerals and mourning, as new works of commemorative and sepulchral art were only occasionally set up in churches.

The exhibition includes lecture programmes, curator tours, educational programmes, the spring film programme and other events. The museum shop offers souvenirs connected with the exhibition. On Fathers’ Day, a day of games takes place in Niguliste, where visitors can play The Danse Macabre board game with Asko Künnap.

Curator of the exhibition Merike Kurisoo, Design Liina Siib