Many authorities state that the development of macabre images were a result of the plague that first swept through western Europe 1347-1350. However, many aspects of the macabre were already in place prior to the plague. A more realistic explanation for the macabre is in the modification of religious belief, specifically the development of
Purgatory. The Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead was chosen as the focus of study because its popularity peaked in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, seemingly
coinciding with the arrival of the plague. Depictions of the Legend tell of three nobles on a hunt who come across three corpses. The Dead are presented as a mirror upon which the Living meditate to remind them everyone dies, so they should repent of their sins now.
Anxiety about death and bodily decay began before the plague. Vision literature and ghostly visitations helped "prove" that a place of purging existed. After the Church
officially recognized Purgatory, the earliest known version of the Legend was written by
Baudoin de Conde. When Purgatory was accepted as doctrine in 1274, anxiety about the soul's punishment after death created a greater focus on death and decomposition. Other macabre images developed from the Legend. As in the Legend, the danse macabre was to be a mirror to the living. However, in depictions of the danse, images of the living are from different stations in life. The different classes represented allowed viewers to have a closer connection to the danse than to the nobles in the Legend. Another image was the transi, or cadaver, tomb. Double tombs depict an image of the person during life on the top, while at the bottom is an image of that person's cadaver. These tombs were often built by the patrons prior to their death so they could meditate on their own image in life and death. While some recent publications persist in claiming these developments are related to the arrival of the Black Death, these images first appeared at least half a century after the first outbreak of the plague.
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