Ars Moriendi

Many hospice organizations have printed up little booklets for families to read giving a “what to expect” of the dying process. This idea is by no means a new concept. In fact, one of the first books printed with movable type back in the 1400’s was just such a book. “Ars Moriendi” (The Art of Dying) was a book written by an anonymous Dominican friar in 1415. It was THE book on how to prepare to die and how to die well. You can be the judge of how relevant such a book would be for today.

The book describes the five temptations that dying people face. In 5 different scenes a devil invites the temptations of lack
of faith, despair, impatience, vanity and greed. The next 5 scenes depicted are the solutions to these temptations, what one must seek to die well: Faith, hope, patience, humility and generosity. This line drawing is from the artist Master E.S. from 1440, one of the earliest depictions of the Ars Moriendi text, entitled “Impatience”. Note the chachetic look of the dying man, his ribs clearly visible. See the table knocked down and the dying mans leg kicking a caregiver in the back. When I see this picture I think of delirium, or terminal restlessness that we see in the dying process. I suppose labeling it impatience was the best reason they had to give such extreme behavior.

The artist Hieronymus Bosch also depicted this theme in his painting entitled “Ars Moriendi”(1490). In this illustration he attempts to depict the struggle between
good and evil. The angel is on the dying man’s deathbed attempting to direct his eyes upward to the crucifix illuminated in the window by divine light. Meanwhile a little devil is attempting to give the man a purse of money. We are left not knowing which path this man will take, as death sneaks into the room with an arrow in his hand.

What would a picture of Ars Moreindi look like today? How would we in modern times communicate what it means to die well? Perhaps the ideas of faith, hope, patience, humility and generosity are still components of the process even now.

Cross published at

Works: Master E.S.(1440) “Impatience”
Bosch, Heronymus(1490) “Ars Moreindi”

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