John Sharp’s Thoughts on “Living & Dying in the Middle Ages”, by Peter Firth

This might have sounded a rather daunting title for a lecture, but Peter Firth’s presentation was anything but melancholic.  At its heart it involved a detailed – and fascinating – examination of two works of art. One was a wall painting from an English parish church, the other a devotional table designed by Hieronymus Bosch for the Spanish King, Philip II.  Peter provided a context for these works by explaining how medieval attitudes towards death reflected both the hardships of earthly life and Christian teaching about the prospects of life after death. The imagery in the paintings was made clear and comprehensible through a consideration of some key religious notions: the seven deadly sins, the seven good works, the four last things, including the idea of the Last Judgment and the reality of heaven and hell.

Helped by a close focus on the pictures, which were projected and studied as a whole and in close up, we were able to gain a deeper understanding of the works than a cursory look would have shown.  In doing this we were brought into direct contact with the medieval mind, with its reliance on powerful visual images, and a world-view so different in many respects from our own.

John Sharp

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