Ars Moriendi : The Art of Dying

Ars Moriendi : The Art of Dying

The Ars Moriendi has fascinated people since the Middle Ages. But what does it mean? Is it a manuscript dictating how to "die well"? Is it a companion for the family of the dying person? 🤔

The Ars Moriendi, or "The Art of Dying," is a collection of Christian literature providing spiritual guides for the dying and those who assist them. A first version is a treatise that provides exhortations, meditations, rites, and prayers. The second is a description of the dying person's struggle against temptations and the achievement of a good death.

In this article we will look together at the details of the Ars Moriendi and what it means to "die well". We will talk about the various works describing this Catholic ideology. The traditions that surround it, as well as its status today in our society. Let's start together now!

Definition of Ars Morendi

The Ars Moriendi is a collection of several editions, copies and versions of a popular 15th century work also known as the "Art of Dying". It was intended to provide comfort and practical instruction for the dying and their families. All later versions refer to two Latin texts dating from 1415 ("long version") and 1450 ("short version"). The popularity of these works is probably due in part to the wide spread of fatal diseases during this period.

The long version was written by an anonymous Dominican friar, probably on commission from the German Council of Constance (1414-1418). It consists of six chapters, the first four of which encourage the dying Christian with hope, turn him away from temptation, remind him of the love of Christ, and exhort him to imitate Christ. The last two chapters teach friends and family how to behave at the bedside and how to pray for the dying. 

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The short version, first written around 1450, is essentially an adaptation of the second chapter of the long version, concerning five temptations to resist death. These were illustrated by pairs of woodcuts, showing each temptation and its defeat. This version was never translated into English, but handwritten and book block editions were popular in Britain.

Handwritten copies were incredibly popular, and many printed editions were published throughout Europe after the advent of the printing press. There were nearly 100 editions of the long version before 1500. The copies held by the Bodleian Bookshop come from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and England. Most of them date from the 1490s.

The first of his two books describes how to live well as the essential preparation for a good death. It deals with Christian virtues, gospel texts and prayers, and comments at length on the seven sacraments as integral to the life and death of Christians. The second book, The Art of Dying Well as Death Approaches, recommends meditating on death, judgment, hell and heaven, and discusses the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and extreme unction or anointing of the sick with oil.

Ars Morendi

Practical Advices to the Dying

This body of Christian literature thus provided practical advice to the dying and those who assisted them. These manuals informed the dying of what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions and attitudes that would lead to a "good death" and salvation. The first such works appeared in Europe in the early 15th century and gave rise to a remarkably flexible genre of Christian writing that endured into the 18th century. ⏳

Written in Latin, Ars Moriendi would have been read primarily by priests and scholars, among the few who could read and write. Priests would then be able to pass on this knowledge to dying Christians and their families, so that they would be prepared for divine judgment in the afterlife.

The book emphasizes the last hour, stimulates interest in the circumstances of death, and encourages prayers and invocations of saints offering protection against a sudden and unprepared death. The emphasis on the ars vivendi goes back to a Stoic maxim, whose Christian meaning was given by the Church Fathers who declared that no death is bad if it is preceded by a good life.

Ars Morendi Canva

War and Disease (Black Death)

Disease, war, and the changing theology and politics of the church provided the backdrop for this new book. The Black Death had devastated Europe in the previous century, and its recurrences, along with other diseases, continued to shorten life. Wars and violence also claimed many lives. This was one of the reasons why people were so interested in this work at the time. ☠️

The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between France and England was the greatest conflict of the time, but its violence and political instability also reflected many local conflicts. The fragility of life under these conditions coincided with a change in people's behavior and their relationship to life and death. Death and questions about the afterlife were thus central to the conversations. And wanting to "die well" was a major concern.

The late Middle Ages were a time of uncertainty, upheaval and death. The plague and near-constant wars had killed millions throughout Europe, and people turned to their faith for reassurance. The learned men of the Christian Church understood that people needed practical guidance in the face of death. The answer was an illustrated guide to death, known as the Ars Moriendi. 💀

In medieval Europe, death was omnipresent. The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, killed more than 20 million people, two-thirds of the European population. Famine struck repeatedly, and throughout the 1300s and 1400s, hardly a year went by without conflict, rebellion and war. Faced with so much death and destruction, people turned to religion to understand what was happening at the end of life.

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Arrival of the Ars Moriendi

In response to this need, the Ars Moriendi was born as part of the authorities' program for the education of priests and laity. In the 14th century, catechisms began to appear and manuals were written to prepare priests for the dying. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) was the occasion for the composition of the Ars Moriendi.

The Ars Moriendi survives in two different versions. The first is a longer treatise of six chapters which prescribes the rites and prayers to be used at the time of death. The second is a brief, illustrated book that shows the dying person's struggle against temptations before reaching a good death. As Mary Catharine O'Connor argues in her book The Arts of Dying Well, the longer version was composed earlier and the shorter version is a shortened version that adapts and illustrates the second chapter of the treatise. 📖

Yet O'Connor also pointed out the artistic originality of the short version. For while many deathbed images predate the Ars Moriendi, never before had deathbed scenes been linked into a series "with some sort of story, or at least related action, running through them." The longer Latin treatise and its many translations survived in manuscripts and printed editions throughout Europe. The illustrated version circulated primarily in the form of "block books," where images and text were printed from carved wooden blocks.

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Temptations and Remedies of Death

The second chapter is the longest and most original section of the treatise. It confronts the dying with five temptations and their corresponding "inspirations" or remedies:

The temptation against faith as opposed to reaffirmation of faith.
The temptation to despair versus the hope of forgiveness.
The temptation of impatience versus charity and patience.
The temptation to vanity or complacency as opposed to humility and remembrance of sins.
The temptation to greed or attachment to family and possessions as opposed to detachment.
The second and fourth temptations are particularly important because they test the dying person's sense of guilt and self-esteem in two very contrasting states: a consciousness of his sins that places him beyond redemption and a confidence in his merits that sees no need to forgive. Both despair and self-confidence can be overwhelming because they preclude repentance. Therefore, the corresponding remedies encourage the dying to acknowledge their sins in hope, for all sins can be forgiven through contrition and the saving death of Christ.

As Ariès notes, through the five temptations, the Ars Moriendi emphasizes the active role of the dying in freely deciding their fate. For only their free consent to demonic temptations or angelic inspirations determines whether they are saved or not.

Angel painting

The Art of Dying Well

The third chapter of the longer treatise prescribes "interrogatories" or questions that lead the dying to reaffirm their faith, repent of their sins, and commit themselves fully to the passion and death of Christ. The fourth chapter asks the dying to imitate Christ's actions on the cross and provides prayers for "a clear end" and the "eternal beatitude that is the reward of a holy death."

In the fifth chapter, the focus is on those who assist the dying, including family and friends. They are to follow the previous prescriptions, present the dying with images of the crucifix and saints, and encourage them to repent, receive the sacrament, and make a will by disposing of their possessions.

In the sixth chapter, the dying can no longer speak for themselves, and the attendants are instructed to recite a series of prayers to "deliver our brother's spirit" into the hands of God.

Skull Canva

The Ars Moriendi Art

The illustrated Ars Moriendi ends with a triumphant image of death. The dying man is at the center of a lively scene. A priest helps him hold a candle in his right hand as he breathes his last. An angel receives his soul in the form of a naked child, while the demons below express their frustration at having lost this battle. A crucifixion scene appears on the side, with Mary, John and other saints. This idealized portrait thus completes the "art of dying well".

The Art of Dying Well Today

According to many specialists, this tradition has not really disappeared. On the contrary, its assimilation into the Christian "arts of living" eventually led to less emphasis on the deathbed, and with it the decline of a distinct genre devoted to the time of death. The art of dying then found a place in prayer books and manuals for rituals of broader conception, where it remains today. The Ars Moriendi has thus returned to its origins.

Having emerged from the prayer and liturgy of the late Middle Ages, it fell back into the matrix of Christian prayer and practice in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The Ars Moriendi suggests useful questions for approaches to death in the twenty-first century. Over the course of its long existence, it has ritualized the pain and grief of death in conventional Christian forms of belief, prayer, and practice. 

With a legacy of over 600 years, Ars Moriendi is still as relevant as ever, albeit in a new digital form. The medieval handbook on death has been resurrected, and it has continued to live on into a new millennium, while providing spiritual comfort and guidance for those at the end of life.

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