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Daniela Rywiková's book is a welcome addition to Central European Art History studies, particularly those concerned with death representations. Such depictions include painted walls, manuscript images and texts where death appears in various guises. For example, a fleshy skeleton, a dead horseman leaping towards the living or static danse macabre escorting the living to their final destination are among the depictions Rywiková discusses in her book.
A wide range of late medieval and early modern scholars have tackled most aspects of death representations, especially in the milieu of Latin Europe. Adding Bohemian geography to this already wide scope, especially for English language readers, is therefore no small task, considering the volume of work that has already been conducted on the subject matter. One can look to the incredibly astute research put forth by Paul Binski, Elina Gertsman, Ashby Kinch, and Maja Dujakovic, to name just a few. These scholars have recast death in the Middle Ages into a rewarding, always plural, and interdisciplinary field of study. Rywiková's bibliography shows awareness of these studies. Nevertheless, her work does not take the Bohemian images towards complex analyses as Gertsman or Kinch do. But Rywiková successfully casts light on what can and should be done in the future with this rich source of material.
At its core, Speculum Mortis is an iconographic exploration that aims to situate the Bohemian death visual program within the European corpus. In the foreword, Rywiková states that her book is an overview, or foundation for further research. "The book is an outline set in a broad context where the Czech late medieval representations and presentations" (xi) can germinate. She arranges her program into a sequence of chapters, which to a certain extent function thematically. Moreover, the author blurs the chronological lines, favoring a focus on the development of the iconography over the formulation of a grand argument. Here, the corpus under examination dates from the later part of the period, providing iconographic and formal examples from the earlier periods.
The introduction and two ensuing chapters situate the investigation of death as a motif in a larger European geography. Rywiková, at times, refers to the reasons behind the late-medieval fascination with the details of death, underlining some contextual histories and effects of the paradigms that shifted in the aftermath of the Black Death, the loss of faith in religious institutions and the increase in lay piety. "The Last Judgment, hell, and heaven were terms related to Christian eschatology" and were familiar to Christian communities in the high and late Middle Ages. The death motif in late medieval art in Czech lands was less common and more complicated, but also "more iconographically diverse" (xxi).
In the central part of her book, Rywiková unpacks aspects of Bohemian death iconography. After cataloging how death images appear in various contexts - in a charnel house, portrayals of heaven and hell, or in manuscripts to name a vital few - she links the Bohemian iconography to European models. Finding and following the iconographic trace is a principal investigation in this book. In addition, however, each chapter ventures into arguments for concepts among which the moralistic, didactic and pastoral function of images figure high on Rywiková's survey trajectory.
Each of the remaining four chapters concentrates on a Bohemian object as a case study. Chapter three focuses on the Broumov Charnel House, where death iconography communicates the urgency and cruelty typical for the late Middle Ages. The images present death in all aspects of human existential anxiety, including the physical process of death. Unfortunately, the wall paintings are nearly completely decayed, and image reproductions are just as challenging to discern. Nevertheless, Rywiková attempts to describe them as accurately as possible, at once giving life to nearly obliterated wall paintings and teasing the reader for what they cannot see. In a book that pays such close attention to iconography, not being able to see the images under discussion is counterproductive; especially since the author postulates that "individual experience with death and dying becomes a collective obsession in the fifteenth century" (70). How and why these images could create a collective experience is unclear to the reader. Regardless of their size or location, viewing images in public places is always a collective practice, but why the Broumov Charnel House is significant in this respect remains a mystery or a potential for further research.
The collective experience of images in which the figure of death appears and dominates the setting is also at the core of chapter four. In the Bohemian environment, Imago Mortis appears exclusively in mural paintings. The earliest example of the Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead in the Czech context is in the parish church of St. Moritz in Mouřenec u Annína, and this is this chapter's key focus. Here, Rywiková argues that this very fact speaks to the didactic and pastoral use of this image: a "multifunctional [...] and polysemantic visualization" (115) which attests to the complexity of medieval death visual repertoires.
The author centers on two fantastic Bohemian Manuscripts in chapters five and six. They are the Krumlov Miscellanea, 1417, where the road to virtuous life appears as subject matter, and the Bible of the Hussite Priest, 1441, a book in which two Prague Dances of Death illuminations can be found. Juxtaposing the vernacular text to manuscript illustrations, Rywiková echoes findings from previous chapters, claiming that the "anonymous treatise on sins in the Krumlov Miscellanea was, undoubtedly, intended for pastoral education in both the monastic and lay environment" (145). What is more, the Miscellanea "exactly corresponds with the late medieval 'trends' - the blending of traditionally monastic mystic-moralistic themes (the perfection of the monastic life, seeking God's wisdom and so forth) with universally pastoral themes (ars moriendi or the treatise on sins)" (147). It seems that the terror of death and the ushering of souls are at the very heart of these books.
Both the Krumlov Miscellanea and Hussite Bible manuscripts feature exquisite illuminations that are one of a kind in the context of Czech medieval art. Rywiková contends that the role of the images in the Krumlov book is to illustrate the text. The text and image, according to the author, "make up a logical collection that guides the reader through the perfect, virtuous life whose aims must be spiritual struggle against sins and toward self-improvement and the confession as part of the preparation for the good death" (147).
The Hussite Bible's two Dance of Death images connect essential aspects of the medieval perception of death: physical death, and eternal damnation. These convictions are typical of Hussite theologians' different perceptions of death and visual examples that negotiate locality. Thus, the images of static danse macabre iconography respond to these specific moralizing traditions with a "strong social current characteristic of the contemptus mundi genre and the atmosphere of society awaiting the end of the world, a symptom that also strongly resonated in Hussite Czech lands" (181). I use the term static danse macabre figures, repeating Rywiková's exciting observation vis-à-vis these depictions, because in other milieus, death figures join hands with the living in a unilateral perpetual motion. The only dynamism between Hussite Bible's death figures and living figures are the unraveled scrolls with inscriptions unfurled. The staticism is not an illuminator's faux pas but, as the author explains, a specific local norm.
Like Gertsman's book, Rywiková tackles later changes in the visual death repertoire in an epilogue. She notes a persistent infatuation with death and its representation with continuities and breaks in the visual tradition. It appears that the epilogue was the only place where the author could insert the spectacular image of death on a toy horse. It seems partial to reduce it to the topsy-turvy world à la Mikhail Bakhtin. Then again, perhaps a future study could root the parody and provide alternative interpretations.
Rywiková's book is a traditional iconographic analysis, a study of the themes or concepts of imagery as conveyed through literary and visual traditions. It is a history of sorts, in this case, of death iconography, which trickled through a variety of possible channels via court envoys or travelling and displaced scribes and illuminators. These objectives might have been more apparent had the book gone through more structural, stylistic, and copy-editing processes.