The Ars Moriendi has fascinated people since the Middle Ages. But what does it mean? Is it a manuscript that prescribes how to « die well »? Is it a companion for the family of the dying? 🤔

The Ars Moriendi, or « The Art of Dying, » is a collection of Christian literature that offers spiritual guidance to the dying and those who help them. A first version is a treatise containing exhortations, meditations, rituals and prayers. A second is a description of the dying person’s struggle against temptation and achieving a good death.

In this article we will look together at what Ars Moriendi is in detail and what it means to « die well ». We will talk about the different works that this  Catholic ideology . The traditions that surround them as well as their status in our society today. Let’s start together now!

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Definition von The Art of Dying

The Ars Moriendi includes several editions, copies, and versions of a popular 15th-century work also known as the Art of Dying. It was designed to provide comfort and practical guidance to the dying and their families. All later versions refer to two Latin texts from the years 1415 (« long version ») and 1450 (« short version »). The popularity of these works is probably due in part to the widespread spread of deadly diseases during this period.

The long version was written by an anonymous Dominican brother, probably on behalf of the German Council of Constance (1414-1418). It consists of six chapters, the first four of which encourage hope in the dying Christian, restrain him from temptation, remind him of the love of Christ, and urge him to imitate Christ. The last two chapters teach friends and family how to behave at the bedside of the dying and how to pray for them. 🙏

art of dying

The short version, first published around 1450, is essentially an adaptation of the second chapter of the long version, which deals with five temptations  to resist death.  These were illustrated by pairs of woodcuts showing each temptation and its defeat. This version was never translated into English, but manuscript and book block editions were popular in Britain.

Handwritten copies were incredibly popular, and many printed editions were published across Europe after the advent of printing. Before 1500 there were almost 100 editions of the long version. The specimens held by the  Bodleian Library come from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and England. They mostly date from the 1490s.

The first of his two books describes the way to live well as essential preparation for a good death. It covers Christian virtues, gospel texts and prayers, and provides extensive commentary on the seven sacraments as an integral part of Christian life and death. The second book, The Art of Dying Well When Death Approaches, recommends meditating on death, judgment, hell, and heaven, and discusses the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist, and the last sacraments or anointing of the sick with oil.

The art of dying

Practical advice for the dying

This set of  Christian literature  therefore offers practical advice for the dying and their caregivers. These manuals informed the dying of what to expect and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a  »  good death   » and salvation. The first works of this type appeared in Europe in the early 15th century and established a remarkably flexible style of Christian writing that lasted into the 18th century. ⏳ Written

in Latin, Ars Moriendi is said to have been read primarily by priests and scholars, who were among the few people who could read and write. The priests would then have been able to pass this knowledge on to the  dying Christians and their families so that they are prepared for the divine judgment in the afterlife.

The book emphasizes the last hour, encourages interest in the circumstances of death, and encourages prayer and invocation of saints who offer protection from sudden and unprepared death. The focus is on

the ars vivendi  goes back to a Stoic maxim whose Christian meaning was shaped by the Church Fathers, who declared that no death is bad if it is preceded by a good life.

Illustration art of death

War and Disease (Black Death)

Disease, war and the development of theology and church politics formed the background for this new book. The Black Death had devastated Europe in the previous century, and its return and other diseases continued to shorten life. Wars and violence also claimed many lives. This was one of the reasons why people were so interested in this work back then.☠️

Wars and violence also claimed many lives. This was one of the reasons why people were so interested in this work at the time. La  fragility of life  in these conditions coincided with a change in people’s behavior and their relationship to life and death. Death and questions about the afterlife were therefore a central theme in the conversations. And the desire to « die well » was an important concern.

The late Middle Ages was a time of uncertainty, upheaval and death. The plague and near-constant wars had killed millions of people across Europe and people turned to their faith for comfort. The educated men of the Christian church realized that in the face of death people needed practical guidance. The answer was A Guide  Illustrated by Death , referred to as Ars Moriendi. 💀

In medieval Europe, death was omnipresent. Also known as the Black Death, the bubonic plague killed over 20 million people, two-thirds of Europe’s population. There were repeated famines and during the years 1300 and 1400 hardly a year passed without conflict, rebellion and war. Faced with so much death and destruction, people turned to religion to understand what happened at the end of life.

Black Plague

Arrival of the Ars Moriendi

To meet this need, the Ars Moriendi was born as part of the authorities’ program for the formation of priests and lay people. In the 14th century catechisms began to appear and manuals were written to train priests to deal with the dying. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) was the occasion for the composition of the Ars Moriendi.

The Ars Moriendi lives on in two different versions. The first is a lengthy six-chapter treatise prescribing the rites and prayers to be employed at the moment of death. The second is a short, illustrated book showing the dying person’s struggle against temptation before achieving a good death. As Mary Catharine O’Connor argues in her book  The Arts of Dying Well, the long version was composed earlier and the short version is a cut adapting and illustrating the second chapter of the treaty. 📖

However, O’Connor also emphasized the artistic originality of the short version. For although many  deathbed pictures predate  the Ars Moriendi, never before had deathbed scenes been assembled into a series « with some kind of story, or at least a related plot, running through it. » The longer Latin treatise and its numerous translations survived in printed manuscripts and editions throughout Europe. The illustrated version circulated primarily in the form of « block books, » in which images and text were printed from carved blocks of wood.

die well

The book about the art of dying

An English translation of the longer treatise appeared around 1450 under the title The Book of the Craft of Dying. The first chapter commends the death of good Christians and repentant sinners who die « willingly and voluntarily. » Since the best preparation for a good death is a good life, Christians should « live in such wisdom that they may surely die, any hour God wills. » Nonetheless, the treatise focuses on death and assumes that deathbed remorse can bring salvation.

The Book of the Craft of Dying

Allurements and Remedies of Death

The second chapter is the longest and most original section of the treatise. It confronts the dying with five temptations and their corresponding « inspirations » or remedies:

  1. The temptation against the faith as opposed to the affirmation of the faith.
  2. The temptation of despair versus the hope of forgiveness.
  3. The temptation of impatience as opposed to charity and patience.
  4. The temptation of vanity or complacency as opposed to humility and the remembrance of sins.
  5. The temptation of avarice or attachment to family and possessions as opposed to detachment.

The second and fourth temptations are particularly important because they test the guilt and self-esteem of the dying in two very opposite states: an awareness of their sins that places them beyond salvation, and a trust in their merits that is not a necessity looks for forgiveness. Both despair and confidence can be overwhelming because they rule out regret. Therefore, the appropriate remedies encourage the dying to recognize their sins in hope, since all sins can be forgiven through repentance and the redeeming death of Christ. ✝️

As Ariès notes   , through the five temptations, the Ars Moriendi emphasizes the active role of the dying in making free decisions about their lives. Destiny . For only their free consent to demonic temptations or angelic promptings will determine whether or not they will be saved.

The art of dying well

The third chapter of the longer treatise prescribes « interrogations, » or questions, designed to get the dying to reaffirm their faith, for their  sins , and to commit themselves fully to the suffering and death of Christ. The fourth chapter urges the dying to imitate the actions of Christ on the cross and provides prayers for « a clear ending » and the « eternal happiness which is the wages of a holy death. »

In the fifth chapter, the focus is on the people who support the dying, including family and friends. They are to obey the earlier precepts, the dying pictures of the  crucifix and saints and encourage them to do penance, receive the sacrament and make a will by disposing of their property. ✍️

In the sixth chapter, the dying can no longer speak on their own behalf, and the helpers are instructed to say a series of prayers to place « our brother’s spirit » in the hands of God. 

Die Well Book

Die Kunst The Art of Dying

The illustrated Ars Moriendi ends with a triumphant image of death. The dying man is the focus of a lively scene. A priest helps him hold a candle in his right hand as he breathes his last. An  angel  receives his soul in the form of a naked child, while the demons below express their frustration at losing that battle. To the side appears a crucifixion scene with Mary, John and other saints. This idealized portrait thus completes the « art of dying well ». 🕯

The Tradition of the Art of Dying

This tradition has remained strong in the Roman Catholic communities . In his book From Madrid to Purgator, Carlos Eire documented the influence of tradition in Spain, where the Ars Moriendi shaped the published narratives of the deaths of Saint Teresa of Avila (1582) and King Philip II (1598). In his study, Daniel Roche found that their production peaked in the 1670s and declined in the period 1750-1799. He also noted the leading role played by the Jesuits in the writing of the Ars Moriendi Catholic texts, with sixty authors in France alone. 🇫🇷

In her book The Reformation of Ritual, Susan Karant-Nunna documented the persistence of the  Ars Moriendi tradition  in the art of dying in late 16th-century Germany. Although the Reformers abolished the veneration of the saints and the sacraments of penance and anointing, Lutheran pastors continued to teach and exhort the dying to repentance, confession, and receive the Eucharist. Martin Moller’s Handbook of Preparing for Death (1593) gives detailed instructions on this art of dying.

Gemälde "The Art of Dying"

The art of dying well today

Many experts are of the opinion that this tradition has not really disappeared. On the contrary, their identification with the Christian « art of living » eventually led to less emphasis on the deathbed, and with it the decline of a distinct genre dedicated to the hour of death. The art of dying later found its  place in prayer books  and manuals for wider rituals, where it remains today. The Ars Moriendi has thus returned to its origins.

Having emerged from late medieval prayer and liturgy, it fell back into the matrix of Christian prayer and practice in the late 17th and 18th centuries . The Ars Moriendi suggests useful questions for dealing with death in the 21st century. Throughout its long existence it has ritualized the pain and sorrow of death in conventional Christian forms of belief, prayer and practice. 🙏

With a legacy spanning over 600 years, Ars Moriendi is still relevant, albeit in a new digital form. The medieval handbook of death has been revived and lives on in a new millennium as it offers spiritual comfort and counsel to those at the end of life.

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