1/ The "Danse Macabre" (lower part) 2/ Hell (upper part)
In 1912, following a fall of several pieces of distemper which covered them, the original paintings were discovered.
In the whole of France there are only seven examples of "Danses Macabres", all of them dating between 1450 and 1550.
1/ The "Danse Macabre"
The underlying idea of this macabre dance is that, confronted by death everyone is on an equal footing. So here on the frieze we can see filing past, between the skeletons representing death, all the social classes, from the pope to the king to poor beggars.
Of all these characters only some remain clearly visible, in spite of recent restoration.
Details of the fresco:
From a high pulpit, a preacher with a white beard speaks of death. His sermon is written out, above the dead and the living, on a long band which runs the whole width of the fresco.
Looking from the left:
When the death of each person is announced, (we can see Death in the form of a skeleton blowing a trumpet), at that moment everyone , however great he may be,knows he must die.
Then follow all the characters in order of their earthly importance: starting with the grandest, the pope, then the emporer, the king, the cardinal, the prince, the bishop, the knight, the well-to-do and the merchant…..even the sweeper who brings up the rear is not left out…..
Notice how the skeleton of death places his foot on the feet of the living….stop! don’t make another move, all are equal before death; it is absolutely impossible to resist him.
"The rigours of death are unmatched and without rival. Even the guard at the gate of the Louvre cannot protect our kings …."
It is interesting to note that, in the iconography of the afterlife, Hell is much more vivid and humourous than Heaven! What is certain is that at the time of their painting, religion was based much more in forbidding people to do wrong than in encouraging them to do right. This medieval terror of hell seems to have reached a stage at the end of the 15th century where the Kernascléden hell would probably have only frightened the children.
But what makes this scene of hell so accessible both to the eye and the mind is its wit and colourfulness as well as being able to appreciate this reasonable depiction of the fear of hell…..
Details of the fresco:
The first thing which catches our attention is a vast cauldron into which the damned of all social classes have been thrown, of whom we can see only the heads.We can identify a monk by his tonsure, a noble by his wig, a woman with long hair.With the aid of a fork a demon restrains all those who might be tempted to escape. A bird-headed demon uses a hook to hold several people under the cauldron who doubtless will be used to feed the fire….
On the left, another cooking-pot, rather smaller, contains several of the damned which a demon seems to be stirring with a stick.
Emerging from the large cauldron is a dry tree, with sharpened branches upon which the damned are impaled, their hands tied to stop them escaping! They are flayed, clawed and bitten by the demons.
To the right we can see the "barrel of torture" where the drunks are imprisoned and to the left the "wheel of fortune", a punishment reserved for the rich and which overhangs the bottomless pit.
Even the noble Rohans knew what was bound to happen to them!