The Pessimistic Cultural Atmosphere of Petrarch’s Christendom

By the late middle ages, western Christianity contained within it the distinctly pessimistic anthropology I described in my previous post. As I noted, this contrasted sharply with the anthropological vision of the east, recently defended by Gregory Palamas in the form of hesychasm. And when disasters struck in the west beginning with the fourteenth century, this pessimism was exposed and began to assume an even greater force. The Black Death in the middle of that century killed more than half of the population of western Europe. The Hundred Years War, by the time it was over in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought France and England to a point of exhaustion. Despair and the pessimism that accompanies it ran deep.

It is understandable that the culture of the west reflected these grim realities. One of the most widely read books of the age was by Innocent III, the early thirteenth-century pope who had launched crusades against the heretical Albigensians and, though not originally intended, the Orthodox Greeks. The work was entitled The Misery of the Human Condition, and it was a lamentation about human life. It would shape western anthropology for more than two centuries.

Another example of the period’s pessimistic spirit was the expansion of piety around the innovative doctrine of purgatory. Rejected emphatically by the Orthodox of the east, this doctrine emerged in its fullness only after the Great Schism of 1054 and assumed a greater hold on the imagination of western Christendom as the middle ages advanced. It had the effect of emphasizing the need in this life for “purificatory punishment” (a phrase Augustine had used) and this, so opposed to the eastern doctrine of deificiation, was hardly conducive to the experience of paradise. Furthermore, by extending such punishment beyond the grave to a distinct place (described in graphic detail by Petrarch’s contemporary Dante), purgatory displaced paradise from the mind of western Christians even further.

But perhaps the most elaborate expression of pessimism in the late medieval west was contained within the cult of death, or, more precisely, the cult of death-remembrance (memento mori) that became such a feature of Latin Christianity on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. To be sure, death-remembrance had a venerable place withing traditional Christian moral teaching. Early monastics east and west made use of it to keep the mind on the ultimate goal of salvation. And the tendency of late medieval Roman Catholics to dwell on it can hardly be criticized in light of contemporary ravages like the Black Death. But for the first time in the history of Christendom, the west was producing a sustained meditation on death in the very fabric of its culture.

The most famous example is what came to be called the Dance of Death, a theme recorded first in the early fifteenth-century wall murals of the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris and repeated in murals and paintings thereafter.


The Dance of Death by Bernt Notke

Also know by the name of the Dance Macabre, it featured a train of rich and poor, royal and rude, being borne to their graves by skeletal phantoms.


Notke, Dance of Death (detail)

We can see in these developments an increasingly sharp contrast in the cultures of western and eastern Christendom, divided formally since the Great Schism of 1054.

For the full effect of this contrast, it is worth recalling the image I described in one of my first posts on this blog, and which serves as its main header image: the mural of saintly women adorning the narthex of the Byzantine Basilica of Saint Appolinare in Ravenna, Italy. bisanzio4There, eastern Christian mosaicists presented a vision of the orientation of the Christian toward paradise. Along the north wall of the narthex, where the faithful would stand during divine services, a line of women oriented toward the eastern end of the church, where the altar is located, indicated the experience in this life of communion with God, of deification.

But perhaps we can set the contrast even more sharply if we travel to the late-medieval Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity in the town of Hrastovlje, located in modern-day Slovenia. I will end this post on the rise of anthropological pessimism in the pre-Renaissance west in its narthex, where a remarkable and chilling mural was to be found.

There, along the length of the southern wall of the narthex (that is, almost exactly the same position as the women of Saint Appolinare in Ravenna, though on the opposite wall), a line of skeletons leading Christians to their death appears.  a3ca22e47ff5ee6b9e24bf41c0cb022d

In this case, the morbid pageant does not proceed toward paradise in the east (which here on the south side of the narthex would be toward the left), 173457119but toward the rear of the church, that is, toward the west, long symbolic in traditional Christian architecture as the place of an untransfigured world subject to death, and the devil, and where paradise is absent.



2 thoughts on “The Pessimistic Cultural Atmosphere of Petrarch’s Christendom

  1. Pingback: O espectro do pessimismo antropológico | Paraíso e utopia

  2. Pingback: O espectro do pessimismo antropológico – Notas do subterrâneo

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