Loading the Canon #12 by Helena-Anne Hittel

Ars Moriendi: The Art of Dying

Happy Halloween, Drunken Odysseans! Loading the Canon is taking a deathly turn today, as I examine all things… well, slightly morbid, actually.

Ars Moriendi

People have been making offerings to the dead since time began. They can be things as small as a few flowers to entire terra-cotta armies to protect you in the afterlife. Art historians love grave goods, because they say so much about a culture. Markers, tombs, statuary, pottery all seem to point towards an afterlife. The ancient Egyptians, for example, had some of the most lavishly given gifts buried with them (if you were of a certain station).

When given the words “ancient Egypt,” terms like “mummy”, “pharaoh”, “pyramid” and “sarcophagus” usually aren’t far behind (fun fact: sarcophagus translates to “flesh eater”). It’s true. The ancient Egyptians had, perhaps, one of the most recognizable burial cultures in the world. They were known for the preservation of bodies through mummification, gold funeral masks, colorful sarcophagi, and, of course, constructing giant pyramidal tombs to mark the graves of their pharaohs. The most recognizable (and intact!) of these is the Tomb of Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter and George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. This tomb, in particular, contained over 5,000 ritual and funerary objects, all of which are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Tut mask

The Greeks were well-known for their temple complexes, statuary, and pottery. Certainly the pottery. Vessels were used as household items, trade goods, grave goods, urns and grave markers. The Dipylon Cemetery in Athens, for example, contains graves from as early as 1200 BC to the Hellenistic Period. Many of these graves were marked with various large-scale decorative pottery. Different shapes also noted who was buried beneath each one. A krater, which is a large vessel out of which wine is served, was commonly used at symposia and therefore associated with men. Thus, this would most likely mark a man’s grave. Vessels such as a lutrophoros (literally, “Carrier of Washing Water”) were used fro a bridal bath before weddings, and would mark the grave of an unmarried woman.


The ancient Etruscans, predating the Roman civilization, had a similar idea as to what to put into a tomb. This idea, however, was made completely robber-proof. The Egyptian tombs held such expensive gifts and were so ostentatious, they basically waved a flag and called out, “Come loot me!” The Etruscans remedied this situation by carving all the objects they thought their loved ones would need, in relief, in the walls of the tomb at Cerveteri. Rob me now, sucker! I dare ya.


Fast forward to the Late Middle Ages. It wasn’t a “Dark Age”, and it probably wasn’t a bad time to be alive. It was just a short time. Religion was one of the most important things back then, and your faith dictated where you would go and what would happen to you. In 1415, a Dominican friar sought to make passing a little bit easier for the masses with the Ars Moriendi (roughly translated from the Latin as “The Art of Dying”). This text was a book of prayers written for the dead and dying and was published in two versions, with the shorter, more condensed version easily accessible by many. These were printed in black and white, but there were also hand-colored “deluxe” versions, if you could spare the expense. These books contained mostly illustrations for the illiterate masses, and could be read to you in Latin by a cleric.

Nobody really wants to die. I definitely don’t, but it’s like taxes: you really can’t avoid it. (Well, you can avoid taxes. It’s just recommended that you don’t.) The ancients knew this, too, but like today, they made cultural offerings to those they mourned. That way, when you woke up in your afterlife, you knew you were loved and it would be business as usual.


Helena-Anne Hittel (Episode 35, essay) is an Art History Major at the University of Central Florida and Intern at the UCF Art Gallery.