Sori, 4 July 2021
During this year’s week-long hike in the Dolomites (which I also mentioned in passing in my previous post), I managed to squeeze in a visit to the parish church of Sesto (or Sexten, to give its German name; we are in Sud Tirol, after all). Let me repeat here a message I have tried to pass in previous posts: always visit every church you come across in Europe, no matter how small it is, because there is a good chance that you will discover an artistic gem (or two). The church in Sesto / Sexten was no exception.
The church itself was OK – it had some interesting frescoes on the ceiling.
But what really made the visit worth while was the cemetery. My wife will tell you that I have a morbid streak, and indeed I don’t deny having a certain preoccupation with death – a preoccupation which, naturally enough I think, is growing with age. But cemeteries do also often contain wonderful art, as people try to lessen the pain caused by the departure of loved ones and reduce the fear of death itself through art. Things started with a bang at the entrance to the cemetery, which took the form of a small circular pavilion reached by a covered staircase from the road.
The ceiling of the pavilion was adorned with a Totentanz, or Dance of Death (danza macabra in Italian). This type of artistic depiction flourished in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries, probably in response to the Black Death and the lesser outbreaks of the plague which continued to periodically sweep through the continent. They were a form of memento mori, a reminder to us that we must all die sooner or later: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”. I came across a typical example of the form several years ago, in a church in Milan.
The phrase on the left says “I was what you are”, while the one on the right says “You will be what I am” (I emailed the photo to a dear friend of mine as an attachment to a lighthearted note; he died a year later – death catches us all, some of us sooner than later).
Dances of Death were different because they stressed that Death was the Great Leveller: whatever your social position, however powerful you were, you could not hide from Death. I suppose this idea was thrown into sharp relief by the Plague: here was a disease which made no distinctions, remorselessly scything down rich and poor, powerful and powerless, old and young, sick and healthy. And so Dances of Death would depict men and women – and children – from all ranks of society and all walks of life dancing with, being embraced by, skeletons. Here are typical examples of the genre.
In the earlier versions, each person would be accompanied by a short poem, often written in an ironic tone, commenting on him or her and their incipient death. And the skeletons would be quite jolly, not only dancing but frolicking about.
Even though the example on the ceiling of that pavilion in the cemetery of Sesto / Sexten was quite modern – it was painted soon after the First World War – its author, Rudolf Stolz, followed the traditional iconography quite faithfully. Thus, we have a ruler.
He is accompanied by a rhyming couplet in German, which states (in my rather free translation)
“The sands have run out,
Lay aside your scepter.”
The skeleton is holding an hourglass, so we can interpret these couplets as something the skeletons are saying to their charges.
Then we have a mature woman, a “matron” as they used to be called.
Her skeleton is saying to her
“Woman, your devotions are over
Idly burns your candle”
To make the point, it pinches the candle’s wick. Like many a matron in a village like Sesto, she must have been a regular churchgoer.
Next we have a mature man, no doubt a local farmer, dressed the way locals would have dressed until quite recently.
With a scythe slung over its shoulder, his skeleton is intoning
“Your virility, your creativity
Cut like grass by a stroke of my scythe”
He is followed by the most poignant of the depictions, that of a baby.
The skeleton is crooning to the baby
“Sleep, my angel, sleep sweetly
You’ll awake in paradise”
At a time when the death of babies and children was still quite common, I can only hope that this painting was of some comfort to grieving mothers on their way to tend the graves of their children.
On goes the dance! We move on to a young man.
His friendly skeleton, bony arm wrapped around his shoulder, is telling him
“Not so sad, young blood
Go homewards with cheerful heart”
Presumably “homewards” in this context means home to the kingdom of God.
Which brings us to a young woman.
Her skeleton is telling her
“Fair maiden with the myrtle wreath
Follow me to the wedding dance”
And indeed the skeleton seems to be about to start the kind of square dance that was common in these parts. But no doubt it is referring to a wedding with Death.
And so we come to the final character, a bishop.
His skeleton is telling him
“Bishop with the shepherd’s crook
Set aside your heavy burden”
and is helpfully taking away his crosier (his crook), no doubt as a first step in divesting him of his other accoutrements.
When I saw this Dance of Death, I was immediately reminded of another Dance of Death which recently went under the hammer at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, a version of Albin Egger-Lienz’s “Totentanz 1809”.
The affinity between these paintings is no surprise. As his name indicates, Egger-Lienz was born just down the road from Sesto / Sexten, in Lienz, now in Austria. Most of the themes of his paintings were Tyrolese. Rudolf Stolz was a great fan of his.
Suitably reminded of my own approaching demise, I passed into the cemetery itself. Tyrolese cemeteries are a joy to visit. Each grave is a little garden, carefully tended by relatives. This one was particularly well kept, and the view on the Dolomites of Sesto was magnificent.
In addition, the crosses over the graves are often masterpieces of ironwork. I throw in a few examples I came across.
I have to assume that all those flowery curlicues are to remind the Christian viewer that the wooden cross is the bearer of (eternal) life, rather like a stick which – when stuck in the ground – sprouts leaves.
Behind the first cross you can see an example of the frescoes that are painted on some of the cemetery’s family tombs. Rudolf and his two brothers Albert and Ignaz painted a good number of these (Albert also painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the church). I rather like this fresco by Ignaz Stolz, a nice take on the story of the Sermon on the Mount.
In the end, though, I rather preferred the sculptures in wood – another great art form in the Tirol; not surprising, given the wealth of wood here – that adorned some of the family tombs.
I’m not sure I would want a sculpture on my family tomb strongly suggesting that I would be burning in Hell …
The story of the women coming to the grave of Jesus to prepare him, only to find an angel sitting at the mouth of the tomb.
Yes, if I am finally laid to rest in a cemetery – which is not a given; cremation is a strong possibility – I think a Tyrolese grave, surrounded by mountain flowers, will do me very well. And I want a brass band to see me off! Once, many years ago, when I was convalescing at home after a knee operation, my wife took me for a spin through the countryside around Vienna. Quite by chance, we came across a funeral procession that had just reached the village cemetery. We stopped to watch. Suddenly, the sombre silence was broken by a duet between trumpet and trombone. What a way to go, to the sound of brass!
I have often told my wife of this desire, but I suspect she has been dismissing it as an emanation of the Monty-Pythonesque side of me, not to be taken seriously. But really, what better way to say that that final goodbye than through the booming notes of a brass band? Since she and I like jazz so much, maybe she could fly in one of those New Orleans funeral bands. Now that would be something!