The Romanian Death Iconography Or A Different Kind Of Assisted Death

In the field of iconography the rhetoric of the end manifested itself initially as a "history of silences," the absence of the motif being possibly equally significant as its presence since, as Michel Vovelle demonstrated, "images interest us as expression of a selective, oblique gaze, revealing both to what is shown and to what is not; the 'silences' of iconography are as edifying as the emphasis laid on certain features, on certain privileged themes." The Antiquity did not avoid the image of Death and the proof to that stand the goblets used at the end of orgiastic banquets, with a skeleton engraved on them to remind the convivialists of their mortality. Memento mori became thus an invitation to living the pleasures of life to the fullest during the short lapse of earthly existence. A few antique mosaics preserve the same image of the skeleton captured in various postures. Out of a Pompeian mosaic kept at the NationalArt Museum in Naples we are faced by the skeleton of a cup-bearer equipped with the utensils specific to his occupation. The catacombs of the first Christian centuries, despite their fulfilling the role of necropolis, offer not a single example of thanatic image and the existing frescoes concentrate their message around scenes from the Old Testament or around Christly symbols (the fish, the lamb, the anchor, the cross, etc.) The idea of the end is however suggested by the representation of funeral repasts which sometimes evince Eucharistic connotations (St. Calixtus' Catacomb) or of the scene of Lazarus' Resurrection (in a crypt in the anonymous cemetery on Via Anapo).During more than a millennium, Death iconography remains silent. "The skeleton vogue" (Louis Dimier) only commences in the latter half of the 14th century, prompted by the great plagues that ravaged the European world. The walls of the cemeteries, the churches and even the palaces begin to display terrifying scenes, such as The Encounter of the Three Living and the Three Dead, The Macabre Dances or The Triumph of Death. The inventory of these iconographies of the macabre, organized by Emile Mâle, was subsequently nuanced due to the research of authors such as Alberto Tenenti, Philippe Ariès, Michel and Gaby Vovelle et al. Gradually, Death iconography in the Western world enjoyed "a diffusion and a persistence unequalled by any lay theme." (Andrei Paleolog) The stature of DeathA strange distance in time separates the thanatic representations in the West (whose spreading occurred from the 15th to the 17th centuries) from the variants belonging to the same paradigm found in the Romanian space (the 18th century in the case of the wooden constructions from the Maramureş area and the following century for the masonry buildings from Muntenia, Oltenia and Făgăraş county). The inclusion of thanatic images in the iconographic programme of Romanian churches allows for various explanations, from the personal preference of the painters who decorated the respective architectonic ensembles to the perpetuation of certain iconographic patterns under the influence of model notebooks or of the translation of motives by bands of itinerant artisans. There are, to our knowledge, no mentions as to the possible commissioners of these scenes, unlike in the West, where they can most often be identified. What fundamentally distinguishes the cultural spaces that we are considering here is the fact that in Romanian iconography we only find Death – as a well delineated character, identified as such by accompanying inscriptions – whereas in the West there appear frequent images of the dead, as Hélène and Bertrand Utzinger pertinently demonstrate in a study dedicated to the itinerary of the Macabre Dances: "It is not Death, but the dead: they are flayed corpses, skeletons, fleshless bodies, if you want: from this point of view they represent Death, but are not the embodiment of Death itself." The same remark had been advanced, at the beginning of the 20th century, by Louis Dimier, based on the texts juxtaposed to the chains of characters in the Macabre Dances, the label term being "dead," not "Death."In fact, if we compare the stature of Death (in Romanian frescoes) to that of the dead (in Western representations) we notice that the outsize of the character is a feature specific to our iconography, meant to underline the frightening aspect and the almightiness of the spectre as compared to the human being. What do handbooks say?Romanian iconography, post-Byzantine in character, follows as a rule the prescriptions of the handbooks: the inclusion of a certain "model" of Death in the pictorial programme can be regarded, up to a point, as a note of originality versus the provisions of the normative texts, in which Thanatos did not figure as independent element but as a component of an ampler scene, such as the representation of the life of the true monarch ("underneath him you shall paint a grave and Death coming out of it with a large scythe on its shoulder and a sand glass on its head; Death shall behold the monarch, while above it the inscription 'Death and the grave'" or the image of the vain existence of this here world ("Underneath the roundness you shall picture a grave and inside the grave a large dragon that holds in its mouth a man facing downwards [who can be seen down to his waist] and next to the dragon Death, also inside the grave, with a big scythe hooked on to the old man's neck, pulling him downwards.")The text, written by Dionysus of Furna between 1728 and 1733 and regarded as the most comprehensive handbook still in existence, circulated in hand-written copies on Romanian territory as well, as early as the beginning of the 18th century. It shows Death also in the context of some parables like that of the barren fig tree ("Depiction: a temple and inside it a man grown gray with his arms crossed on his chest and beside him Death holding a scythe and Christ orders Death to take him down; and the angel, guardian of that man's life, kneeled before Christ pleads to Him saying: 'Lord, allow him one more year'") or that of the bad servants ("Depiction: houses and inside the houses Christians, clergy, monarchs and laymen eating, drinking, dancing to the beating of drums and striking one another and above them all Christ and around them Death cutting them off with the scythe and around Christ angels, also holding scythes; and next to the house, in the midst of the faithless and the heretics, the Doom with fire and devils, dragging the people to itself, out of the houses.")One of the "privileged" postures of the strange character is Death on horseback, taken from the text of the Apocalypse and recorded pictorially almost one century before Dionysus of Furna wrote his Painting Book. The porch of the refectory of the Dionysus monastery on Mount Athos preserves a fresco from the latter half of the 16th century depicting the relentless cavalcade of the Knights of the Apocalypse. The scene, probably influenced by the engravings by Hans Holbein the Younger for Luther's New Testament (1523), is all the more interesting as it signals a new trend in Orthodox iconography, reticent up to that time to illustrating a controversial text. The deviations "operated" by masons from the instructions of the handbooks are of interest, as they allow one "to guess the mutations that took place in the society's mentality, pointing to certain aspirations of political and social character, aspirations that may sometimes be the donor's exclusively but, in many cases, belong to a large social category and even to a whole people." (Vasile Drăguţ) Who is afraid of death today?Field research has allowed the identification of a regrettable fact: many of the faces of Death in Romanian iconography have been destroyed in the 20th century, when it was decided at the level of village parishes to have them erased or, in the most fortunate cases, hidden under a layer of whitewash. The fear of the macabre representation, favored by the belief in the image's capacity to "capture part of the object's identity" (Rudolf Wittkower) gave rise to "defensive" attitudes. Once the reading code that led to the appearance and spreading of this kind of representations was lost, there emerged the need for extreme solutions lest nowadays fear should keep people from going to church. It is the case of the church in Obeni hamlet, Ioneşti village from Vâlcea county, or of that built by deacon Oprea and his son, chancellor Toma, in Runcu village, Ialomiţa county. Similar examples were recorded by Andrei Paleolog in his study of the exterior painting on the religious monuments of Walachia: Măgura (Vâlcea), Sâmbureşti (Olt) or St. Nicolae-Petreu (Drăgăneşti-Olt). The mutation that took place in the collective mental patterns is interpreted by the same author as evidence of today's person's incapacity to live in the vicinity of terrifying presences and their lack of inclination towards a discourse with a clear moralizing tone: "As Thanatos was given by Wallachian painters a deliberately frightening appearance, not so much in order to terrify, as to 'enforce' the awareness of the ineluctable prospect of death, it becomes to a certain extent understandable that, in many places, the image of death was wiped our or painted over in compliance with the manifest will of the citizens."In a few fortunate cases the absence of the image was only temporary and current restoration efforts have uncovered, from under successive layers of whitewash, faces that were once meant to regulate the code of conduct of the churchgoers. Thus at the church in Deseşti village, Maramureş county (dedication day Saint Paraschiva), the southern wall of the narthex (on which painter Radu Munteanu had depicted, in 1780, a fragment from the Last Judgment, including the River of Fire, with the various categories of sinners, but also the personifications of destruction – Death, Plague, Sloth and Hunger) was painted over completely in the seventh decade of the last century and brought to light only thirty years later during massive restoration works. The "disappearance" of these representations is confirmed also by the detailed layout of the narthex made by Anca Pop-Bratu in a paper dedicated to church painting in the Maramureş area and published in 1982, in which the lower part of the southern wall of the narthex appears as completely lacking painting.The church in Râmeşti village, Vâlcea county (dedication day All Saints' Sunday), recovered a few years ago the Aesopian motif of the confrontation between the Old Man and Death painted on the exterior southern façade. The "Horrible Death" – as the inscription in Cyrillic characters names it – is a brownish, oversized creature with clawed hands and feet, exophtalmic eyes and protruding teeth. Armed with a scythe and a knapsack brimming with torture instruments, it shows itself to the old man who had invoked it in a moment of weakness, as the accompanying legend informs: "the Old Man was weary and he asked for death. Then he repented terribly upon seeing death."The same fragment greets us from the southern façade of the small wooden church in the cemetery of the Brezoi village (Vâlcea county). Yet it is difficult to say how long it will remain there, for the advanced degradation of the entire construction affects the images painted on the plaster that is still attempted to "garb" the wooden walls of the edifice. The fragments of masonry work clumsily stuck in place by undergraduate restorers fall off little by little, creating a strange drawing within the existing one. It appears that not even the "Death of the world" – as the inscription in Brezoi calls it – can elude the ravages of time. Should we want to be cynical, we could say that we have the privilege to witness the slow agony of Death. In a way, we are participating in this process by lack of initiative in coming up with valid restoration plans. Wooden or wickerwork churches, plastered and subsequently painted, are the first to show signs of destruction. In Cătane, Hârşeşti and Glambocata-Deal (Argeş county), in Buseşti (Mehedinţi county) or Cloşani (Gorj county), small churches seem to be wearing away irreversibly, consumed by time and forgetfulness. The fear of death, in other words of its pictorial avatars, has turned, in this case, into indifference.Transformed into a taboo topic in Western industrial societies (which took over the American model perfected in the post-war period), death has gradually fallen into obscurity, lest the discourse centered on it should embarrass the (still!) living. In the Romanian rural community, despite the sentiment of the passing being strongly valorized, the faces of Death tend to be perceived as unpalatable and to be, consequently, repudiated by means of various strategies. What remains nonetheless incomprehensible is the attitude of art historians, who seem to ignore the appeal formulated by Nicolae Iorga, now seven decades ago: "All these faces must be photographed or even copied in color for that comprehensive Romanian iconography which we must compile some day, no matter the sacrifices, and which shall be a source of pride for our artistic civilization." Our culture does not benefit even today from the indispensable exhaustive image catalogues. Time and lack of professionalism from restoration teams will diminish the stock of representations, thus depriving us of a unitary and coherent view on the evolution and spreading of certain iconographical motifs and themes. The researcher's quest will more and more turn into detective work: the contours of the scenes will fade away (especially exterior painting), the lemmas will become illegible. Strange inscriptions, accompanying unrecognizable faces on ruined walls. Cultura, No. 14, June 2004

by Cristina Bogdan