April’s here and spring has finally sprung: chirping birds and budding buds and so whatnot. What better way to celebrate than with three grinning reminders of the transience of all mortal delights?
This page above is found in Houghton Library MS Lat. 249, a late fifteenth-century Burgundian book of hours. The text reads “Placebo [Domino]; dilexi quoniam exaudiet Dominus: vocem orationis [meae],” or roughly “I will please [the Lord]; I have loved, because the Lord will hear the voice of [my] prayer” which is the opening of the Office of the Dead. The man in the central illumination is Job on his dung heap speaking to the Lord, who is indicated by the single beam of gold light that stretches diagonally from the top right corner.
As if Job–you know, the guy whose family was killed, health was ruined, and home and all worldly possessions burned because God made a bet with the Devil–wasn’t depressing enough on his own, the illuminator populates the border with three corpses, one from each estate (clockwise from the top: those who work, who fight, and who pray). Here, let me gather the gang all together you can see them better:
From a distance you might mistake them for monkeys, the way they seem to frolic and ape the different classes of men, but the hollow eye sockets, rotted away noses, and gaping holes in their abdomens (made by festering digestive acids [and bacterially produced gasses] after their deaths)** betray them on closer inspection.
Together with the three men (Job and his two friends) in the main illumination, the corpses create something of an ersatz Three Living and Three Dead, a popular incarnation of the memento mori [remember that you will die] theme that’s often found in later*** medieval art. (Wikimedia Commons has several other versions of 3 men & 3 corpses available here.)
So, happy spring, everybody! And remember, the millstone of time will inexorably grind away everything you hold dear!****
*Distinguished from the other two by his lack of distinguishing features.
**Which is what happens when you don’t have an embalmer to vacuum out the insides of the departed and sew them back up for you.
***For “later” read “after the plague that killed 1/3 of the population of Western Europe.”
****On the upside, you’ll be dead for most of the grinding.