Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 1 Art, pages 220-221

One of the earliest versions of the Ars moriendi was illustrated.

The art of human finitude provokes anticipation and preparation for an inevitable end.

The goal was to design a modern image that could develop the themes of each chapter.

Page 219

Dr. Dugdale is attempting, through the ink renderings of Michael W. Dugger, to produce an up-to-date version of the illustrated Ars moriendi from the 1400s. How successful is she? Is it too soon for us to tell? What do you think about her statements regarding the general value of art in preparing for death? What do you think about this art in particular?

This is . . . the image that most closely approximates the original ars moriendi woodcuts reproduced in Chapter Two.

Page 220

Here is one of those woodcut reproductions from Chapter Two:

The contrast between these two images that is most obvious to me is the presence of other people around the dying man’s bed. This seems to indicate the importance of community, which will be the subject of Chapter Three. But the people pictured in the medieval woodcut are not family, friends or health aids. There is Jesus and Mary and the angels (and the demons they have overcome). Surely the meaning is partly symbolic: the presence of Our Lord and Our Lady and the angels and demons symbolize this man’s internal struggle between exercising the virtue of patience and succumbing to the vice of impatience. But I think Jesus, Mary, the angels, and the demons are not just symbols. I think they also represent invisible realities. I think we are to understand that the dying man pictured here, like the dying man in the modern ink rendering, is alone so far as sensory perception could detect. The older image depicts supernatural beings around the death bed so the dying person can understand that, though invisible, these heavenly advocates are really present and can give real help.

Dr. Dugdale says the modern image “lacks any sort of intrinsic morality” and is “devoid of any larger narrative.” The medieval image clearly has a moral message: “patience is a virtue” (I hear that in my mother’s voice) and patience is an important virtue in the art of dying. The presence of the angels and demons in the medieval image evoke the larger narrative. The dying man is engaged in “spiritual warfare,” struggling to exercise virtue and resist vice. But he’s not the only character in this narrative. There are supernatural beings who both aid and oppose him.

Christianity rejects the idea that those good and evil forces are equal. God is the source of all and God will win the victory. In my own conversations with sick and dying people, I often talk about what Saint Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians about how “we hold this treasure in earthen vessels . . . always carrying about in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body . . . although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day . . . this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen” (2 Corinthians 4: 7-18). Through faith, the unseen glory of the Spirit of Jesus in the dying Christian is made manifest. The main character in this narrative of Christian death is not the Christian. It is God.

Blanch wanted to include this image. Unfortunately, you are not able to include images in the “comments” sections of these pages. If anyone else wants to post an image, send it to me and I’ll gladly post it.

13 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 1 Art, pages 220-221”

  1. I too was moved by the hands of Mr. Dugger, especially the left one. It bears the marks of a long, working life, but is now at peace, not empty exactly, but resting. This photo, though it shows a deathbed, is not sad but peaceful, as if the hard work of life is done and Mr. Dugger can now rest. The fact that no one else is in the photo didn’t bother me either because SOMEone is there taking the photo. This photo, then, is just the kind of memorial that folk in the early days of photography took to keep as a memento (“memento mori”) of a loved one at peace at last.

    1. Thank you, Pat. I love your idea that the image of Mr. Turner came from someone who was with him and pictured him as a way of fixing him in memory.

  2. The first one is very modern. In the first image, I would view the person in the bed as being alive and his life prolonged by technology. The last two images seem very hopeful. There is the idea of going onto a better place and to our heavenly homeland. One hard thing about dying alone is that there is no one to make sure that your rights and wishes have been respected.

    1. Thanks, Jenita. I think there are a lot or hard and sad things about dying alone. As a chaplain, I frequently witness the sadness of people who are present at the death beds of those they love. But there is a sadder sadness when no one is there to mourn.

  3. “…this image tells the story of a death that occurs in a hospital, devoid of any larger narrative”.

    Looking at this picture, it seems to me that the artist has indeed presented and drawn us into a larger narrative.

    There is a machine present because it has a place and a purpose in a hospital room, but it is not the central or overwhelming image in this picture. It does not tower over Mr. Turner but it is at his side. It is there to help sustain him but it cannot give him life or take it away. It is a small part of a larger picture.

    The focus is on a human being. In this picture, Mr. Turner appears to be a tall, well-built man. He is not gaunt or wasted, but has a peaceful and dignified expression.

    What strikes me most are Mr. Turner’s hands. They are large, strong hands, almost disproportionate in size. They are in the forefront of the picture and draws one’s attention. They are hands which worked, labored, loved, and gave to others the fruit of his work and love – a life lived fully. His daughters knew this.

    No one is obviously present in the picture but it doesn’t mean no one is there. The angle is not a long side view of a body lying on a bed or a view of the room. It is a short front view of only Mr. Turner and someone facing him. What transpires between God and a soul at the final moments before death is a mystery. It is a dialogue no one else can hear. A final choice no one else can make. Family and friends can pray and console, but are not a central part of the picture. God is and he is present. Perhaps he is the one standing at the foot of the bed facing Mr. Turner, whose hands are not clenched but open and surrendered, ready to be grasped and taken to new life.

    As Catholics, we believe in the redemptive value of suffering. Someone said, “Jesus is in agony until the end of the world and must not be left alone”. As members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we all have a place in Mr. Turner’s narrative, as well as our own.

    Mr. Turner’s death is indeed part of a larger narrative.

    1. I like the observation that image of Mr. Turner is not just an example of any man but a particular man with his own unique life story (conveyed especially through the depiction of his hands). I also like the idea that the lack of companionship in the image need not express isolation, but may be inviting us to see beyond what is visible to us.

  4. For me, this picture of Mr. Turner communicates peacefulness and detaching more than it does aloneness. It brought to mind my 103 year-old grandmother’s death in a nursing home. In her last weeks – only when questioned- she would reveal that deceased relatives had been talking to her and encouraging her. She had a noticeable lack of interest in people and things that had been central to her recent life on earth. In her last days, she did not speak or respond to people around her and, at times, would seem to be focused on someone or something that no one else could see. It was clear that my grandmother was looking ahead to life everlasting and that people she loved, who had gone before her, were with her and helping her. As isolated as Mr. Turner might appear to be in his hospital bed, his calm face reveals that it is not the terrible, lonely experience those much further from death imagine it to be.

    1. As a hospice volunteer with many years of experience, I second what Desiree has said: For many people approaching the stage of active dying, long-dead relatives and friends appear and beckon, interest in the present and people around them wanes, and scenes from the distant past recur in a reality only they can see. This is so common, according to hospice literature, that it is considered normal. Maybe you could classify such experiences as hallucinations, and maybe science would agree. (In my view, God is able to use all means at His hand to communicate with us, including what looks like hallucination.) … The art of the past could make the presence of temptations visible as demons, the presence of God visible in Jesus, and so on, and the dying would relate to the figures and make their journeys to God. The human-ish demons (and for many, even the journey to God) are gone from our culture–and our dying–today, but figures from our past do appear. They may not carry the moral implications the demons and holy figures do, but they do mean we don’t die alone, even if, like Mr. Turner, we seem to be alone.

      1. Thanks Desiree and Linda. I hadn’t thought of it this way, but these two images need not be seen as contrasting. We could see them as depicting nearly identical scenes. The difference would be that the older image shows the outside observer “what is unseen,” while the newer image only shows us “what is seen” and leaves “what is unseen” to the viewer’s imagination.

  5. Even without the direct comparison to the woodcut, the image presented by Dr Dugdale here is extremely void: there is no background, no foreground, no specifically identifying features of the individual or the place he is, apart from the fact that it is a medical facility of some sort. There is no reflection of the past or consideration of what may come next. In this way, I see that Dr Dugdale has succeeded in warning us as to how death may come when not prepared for: as an isolated moment in an isolated life, that is really devoid of meaning or context to the larger world.

    This Ars moriendi, then, to me, does not address the art of dying but merely what dying looks like when art & preparation & patience are removed.

  6. Mr. Turner lies alone…no community whatsoever..no family,nor medical personnel as he draws his last breath…cold and detached. and this is after THREE resusitations!!! In contrast, having watched my sister “wither” away at home for more than a year, and the last few weeks in a “facility”…and upon reflection…probably withering the year before that…she opted for some “new” treatment during the course.of which ..as she told me “it (the time of treatment) gives me a lot of time to think…and to pray While she chose not to discus it with me ..her thoughts or prayers (even though I did ask if she wanted to talk about it) I did have the honor of spending many hours towards her end with her…different days…we all took turns…husband, three adult children. myself and our other sister..”Patience” ..hers and ours..”while our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is renewed day by day” (very tue of her) …and … “as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen” (true!!)..i.e., the communion of saints….while I never thought of demons too, but surely yes of angels..I could envision our parents, our friends and other ancestors..standing behind her/ surrounding her …readying to welcome her home when that last breath came..(as an aside, It was shared by her lifetime friend…holding her hand…so much more comfort than Mr. Turner…so
    maybe we are “getting there” or “beginning to” (even though it was in a neuro icu of a major institution) …she/they had wanted “home” but she was too far gone to “make it home” to her earthly dwelling….I don’t know nor was it my business to know at what point she(they) might have “removed” her so that she could have been “home” ???

    1. Thank you, Vera., for sharing the example of your sister’s death and especially for the insight that patience is learned and practiced by family members and loved ones as well as the the person who is dying.

  7. Amen! We have become a culture of immediate gratification and self-reliance, dismissing the supernatural realm in favor of the here and now. The modern movement to leave God out of our greetings, our pledge, our currency, our schools, our government–all under the guise of not offending others–can leave us feeling alone, anxious, fearful, empty and hopeless. But the beautiful Christian reality is that the angels, martyrs and saints depicted in the woodcut are always with us…both now and at the hour of our death.

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