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FA I TH


Embracing death


The redundant scythe


Personifications of death as the Grim Reaper, an ani- mate skeleton often cloaked in a black hooded cowl, invariably feature the figure carrying a scythe, with which to harvest souls. However, the Reaper usually does his job simply by appearing; he is a herald, with a solely symbolic scythe, rather than the being that physically takes someone’s life.


Winged skeleton holding a scythe Etching 36594i Wellcome Library


Death on film


Vanitas tableau Wax 18th century A99821 Science Museum / L0035771 Wellcome Images


To the Christian...death does not come as a surprise, because he has learned to carry ‘memento mori’ into the midst of life, and can thus turn even death into


something that he does, not merely that he suffers, and make it a work of willing and joyful surrender. He goes from this earthly scene, he is not dragged from it like a prisoner.


Isaak August Dorner and August Johannes Dorner in System of Christian Ethics, 1887


The Grim Reaper that has saturated religious art for centuries has inevitably flowed into popular culture. In Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a crusader knight plays chess with a black-clad Death in the hope that it will forestall his own end. Meanwhile, the Grim Reaper’s comic potential has also been richly explored; in his 1975 film Love and Death, Woody Allen (a Bergman devotee) encounters Death as a white-clad figure with a hidden face and doom-laden voice. In a childhood flashback, the young Allen character questions Death: ‘What happens after we die? Is there a hell? Is there a god?… Are there girls?’


Read


Llewellyn N. The Art of Death: Visual culture in the English death ritual c.1500–1800. London: Reaktion Books; 1991.


Townsend C. Art and Death. London: IB Tauris; 2008. Townsend E. Death and Art: Europe 1200–1530. London: V&A Publishing; 2009.


Watkins C. The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the dead. London: Bodley Head; 2013.


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