Marginal thinking: The office of the dead

The text is introduced by a picture of the mass for the dead.
A burial scene introduces the text.

One of the sections in the books of hours was the Office of the Dead, Officium Mortuorum, Officium Defunctorum or Vigiliae mortuorum.

The Office of the Dead was located towards the end of the book, just as Death comes towards the end of life. The rest of the book — after the Office of the Dead — was dedicated to intercessory prayers — known as "suffrages" — to sundry saints, the identity of which would vary depending on the region where this particular book had been produced.

The Office of the Dead was different from the other sections, not only because of its size, but also by being authorized liturgy. While the rest of the book of hours consisted of prayers that a good Christian might say to himself at the different hours, the Office of the Dead contained the actual text that the choir and the congregation would follow in the church, whether it was for all dead people at All Souls' Day or for a specific funeral.

When one leafs through a book of hours, one can often locate the Office of the Dead by the illustration that introduces the section. One typical illustration is the very mass for which the text was intended (picture to the left).

Another possibility was to depict the burial that would follow the mass (picture to the right). This picture also shows another identifying mark, namely the big "P" in "Placebo". The congregation's first reply to the choir (antiphon) was from Psalm 116 (114 in the Septuagint tradition), Placebo Domino in regione vivorum, I shall please the LORD in the region of the living.

Death attacks a young couple.
Death attacks two women.
UCD BX2080

Another popular category might be labeled "The Triumph of Death" or "Death personified". The theme could be varied endlessly, but the common denominator was Death attacking unsuspecting people, often armed with a giant dart, as seen on the pictures to the left and right.

To the right Death attacks two women standing close to a dead king.

Death comes riding on a bull.
Death comes riding on a bull

The personified Death is often portrayed riding on a bull with his long dart in hand. The ox moves like Death: Slowly, but unstoppably.

When the artists of the time illustrated Petrarch's six Trionfi, the chariot of Death would often be driven by oxen trampling down people in their path. We shall return to that.

BOok of hours: Death attacks a young mand
Douce, Douce 16
Death attacks "Everyman".

In many cases it's a only a single young man who is being attacked by Death with his dart. In these cases the theme is very similar to the story of "Everyman".

The image to the left is from a book of hours, while the image to the right is from a Dutch book: Den spieghel der salicheit van Elckerlijc, "The Mirror of Everyman's Salvation".

One book was printed in Utrecht by Gerard Leeu, while the other was used by Govaert Bac of Antwerp. Two different books in two different cities, and yet the two woodcuts are almost identical. This image can be found even as far away as in Trondheim, Norway.

Job and his three friends
Death attacks a young man

Besides the Psalms, the Office of the Dead also contained quotes from the Book of Job. The story about the naked Job sitting on the dunghill covered with boils and regretting he was ever born, gave associations to the dead being tormented in Purgatory. The same holds true for the dance of death in Basel, which also started with Job's comfort in chapter 19.

Therefore the picture of Job debating his three friends (and being scolded by his wife) is a very popular motive too (picture to the left).

These motives could be combined. To the right we once again have Death attacking "Everyman", while Job is sitting in the background with his friends and wife.

Job and The Triumph of Death
Job and The Triumph of Death

Here are two more examples of this particular combination.

Lazarus the beggar
Lazarus the beggar
Simon Vostre, Lazarus

Another popular motive was Lazarus the beggar. Lazarus is the only person in the Bible, who experiences the afterlife where he gets to rock in the bosom of Abraham.

These two pictures show Lazarus at the table of the rich man. To the left is a version in black and white and in a good resolution, to the right is a version in color. On both copies the dance of death starts in the margin with pope, emperor and cardinal.(1)

This motive is often used, but sometimes it is labeled "David and Bathsheba's wedding". The mistake is understandable since the section immediately preceding the Office of the Dead (often) was the Seven Penitential Psalms of David, and this section would often be illustrated by one or more pictures of David watching Bathsheba in the bath, David sending Uriah off to the battle, and Uriah being killed.

Nevertheless there cannot be any doubt. When the picture shows a dog licking the beggar's wounds this is clearly an allusion to Lazarus: a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, […] moreover the dogs came and licked his sores (Luke 16:20-21).

In the background — through the window — one can see Lazarus lying on the ground next to his beggar's bowl. Is he sleeping or dead? In one version of this image an angel picks up his soul.

Jesus resurrects Lazarus
Jesus resurrects Lazarus
Lazare veni foras

The funny part about the Bible is that there are two persons named Lazarus in The New Testament, who both have an experience after being dead.

The other Lazarus is Jesus' beloved friend whom Jesus resurrected from the dead. This motive was obviously also very applicable to introduce the mass for the dead and to give hope about the resurrection.

The three living
Three living
The three dead
Three dead

The final genre we'll look at is the popular story about the three living meeting the three dead and a hermit.

The story exists in many variants: Sometimes the three living are from three different ranks, and they meet their dead counterparts (example here). Other times its three lay people meeting three dead ecclesiastics. Still other times the three dead are in various stages of decomposition.

The version that's used again and again in the books of hours is the same version that Guy Marchant had printed in his books after the section with la Danse Macabre: Three young noblemen meet three generic dead (see Marchant's woodcuts here: the three living and the three dead).

The text to the left says: "Ad Vesperas", because the mass for the dead consisted of three hours: Vesper (sunset), matins (3 in the morning), and laudes (sunrise).

The three living
Three living
The three dead. With dog.
Three dead

Here's a very similar version. A curious detail is the dog on the picture to the right, which clearly shows its disgust.

The moral remains the same in all the stories: "What you are, we were; what we are, you shall soon become". The three living flees from the dead. This means they'll have a chance to repent and change their wicked ways — as opposed to the dances of death from which there is no escape.

But it must be pointed out again, that there is no text to accompany these illustrations. No matter how different and spirited they may be, the only text in the book (outside the calendars) is the prayers of the various hours. Pictures, including the vignettes, live their own separate lives and don't influence the main book, just like the marginals in Mad Magazine.

The text to the left says. Sequuntur vigilie mortuorum ("now follows the vigil for the dead"), ad Vesperas (evening prayer), antiphona (the congregation's reply to the choir), placebo: the first word in Psalm 116:9 (114:9 in the Septuagint tradition), "I shall please".

The text to the right begins, Dilexi, quoniam exaudiet Dominus, which is the beginning of the same Psalm (116/114).

The three dead
Three dead
The three living
Three living

This particular version was often used by Thielman Kerver.

For more examples, see images tagged with Office of the dead and The three living and three dead.

The rest of this section will concentrate on the borders and dances of death: Dancing on the edge.

Go forth

The next chapter in this series is about Dances of death in the margins.

Footnotes: (1)

I introduced the subject by stating that these marginals have no connection with the rest of the contents, but one of the very few exceptions is that the dance of death in the margin — if there is one — is placed in the Office of the Dead.

But this exception is not enforced by Hardouyn, who distributes La Vie de l'Homme all over the book.