Hallowmas and Beyond: The Inevitability of Death in Medieval and Early Modern Italian Art



Hallowmas season is a Western Christian religious festival that encompasses All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. During this triduum, which is celebrated between 31 October and 2 November each year, the living faithful of the Roman Catholic Church are obliged to honour the dead, including the saints in heaven and those souls in purgatory. The feast also serves to remind the living that they can be saved or damned and that heaven, hell and purgatory exist.  

Outside of the Hallowmas season, inhabitants of the Italian Peninsula during the Medieval and Early Modern periods would have been regularly reminded that death was certain and omnipresent. Apocalyptic preaching was popular in various regions and throughout the ages, with participants such as Salimbene of Parma, Bernardino of Siena, Girolamo Savonarola, Giovanni Dominici and Francesco da Montepulciano warning that one could not escape God’s judgement both in this life and the next. Bernardino of Siena for example, spoke of God’s “fearful judgement” and the “boils’ and “scourges” that would blight individuals and entire populations as a result of their vanities and other sinful activities.

As if to affirm these spoken revelations, the harsh realities of Medieval and Renaissance life would likely have worked to confirm the faithful’s belief in Divine retribution. The horror of war, regular outbreaks of plague, generally high mortality rates and the grisly reportage of violent and unexplained events (such as crop failure, suicides, murders, human and animal birth defects) would ostensibly have added to the apocalyptic climate, as would the popularity of death-centric literature, such as Petrarch’s Triumph of Death.

In post-Tridentine Europe, the ongoing discord between the various forms of Protestantism and Counter-Reformation Catholicism guaranteed that the apocalyptic mood of earlier epochs would continue during the sixteenth century.

It is unsurprising then, that visual representations based on biblical sources, church dogma, death-centric popular literature, historical events and hard fact emerged as recurrent themes in Medieval and Early Modern Italian art. Genres and sub-genres including The Triumph of Death, allegories of death, the Momento Mori and the Danza Macabra, all serving as perpetual reminders that death will come to us all – any day – any place – anytime – and the faithful should consider its inevitability not just at Hallowmas, but always. 











References: The Revelation of Saint John, King James Version of the Bible, 1611.

Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Luca Landucci, A Florentine Diary from 1450-1516 by Luca Landucci Continued by an Anonymous Writer  ‘Till 1542 with Notes by Iodoco del Badia, trans. Alice de Rosen Jervis, London, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1927.

John M. McManamon, “Renaissance Preaching: Theory and Practice. A Holy Thursday Sermon of Aurelio Brandolini.” In Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 10, pp. 355-374. 

Ottavia Niccoli, Prophecy and People in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1990.

Francesco Petrarch, Triumphus Mortis. © 199-2006, Peter Sadlon. Available at http://petrarch.petersadlon.com/read_trionfi.html?page=III-I.en

Girolamo Savonarola, Selected Writings of Girolamo Savonarola: Religion and Politics, 1490-1498, London, Yale University Press, 2006. 

Bernardino of Siena, Saint Bernardine of Siena: Sermons, edDon Nazerino Orlandi, trans. Helen Josephine Robins, Siena, Tipografica Sociale, 1920.

Ingrid Volser, The Theme of Death in Italian Art: The Triumph of Death, MA Thesis, McGill University, Montreal, 2001. 


Images: Lorenzo Costa, The Triumph of Death, 1490, fresco, San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Andrea di Cione (Orcagna), Detail from The Triumph of Death, 14th century, fresco, Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons. 

Giacomo Borlone de Burchis, The Triumph of Death, 15th century, fresco, Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Giacomo Borlone de Burchis, Dance Macabre, 15th century, fresco, Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Unknown, The Triumph of Death, 1446, fresco, Palazzo Abetellis, Palermo, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, A Damned Soul, c.1700, relief, wax on painted copper, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2017.

Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino, A Soul at Death, 1620-1630, relief, coloured wax on painted glass in deep stained and gilt box frame, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2017.

Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino, A Soul in Purgatory, 1620-1630, coloured wax on painted glass in deep stained and gilt box frame, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2017.

Caterina de Julianis, Time and Death, before 1727, coloured and moulded wax, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2017.

Attr. Apollonio di Giovanni, The Triumph of Death, 15th century, tempera and ink on parchment, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons. 

Stefano della Bella, Death on the Battlefield, c. 1650–64, etching; proof state retouched with graphite and pen and brown ink, sheet (trimmed): 7 ½ × 11 ¾ in. (19.1 × 29.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1928, and The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959, by Exchange. Public domain.


Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson.

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