The Three Living and the Three Dead
A Medieval Morality
The subject is French or Flemish in origin and is first heard of at the Court of Flanders in the late 13th century, where it is the subject of five poems, Les Trois Mortes et les Trois Vifs . Three kings went out hunting (in the poems they are specifically described as young) and came across three corpses who castigated them for their preoccupation with pleasure and with wordly things, adding ominous words to the effect that ‘as you are, we once were; as we are, so shall you be’. Paintings of the subject on walls and in manuscripts followed, and the subject soon came to England, where it proved equally popular.
Quite a few paintings of the subject survive in the English Parish Church. There is clearly a good deal of scope for imaginative narrative treatment of the story, and many paintings show fine clothes, elegantly caparisoned horses, dogs, hawks and a variety of flora and fauna. Sometimes there are speech-scrolls, with a version of the text quoted above (Wensley, now featured here, is a case in point). The Three Dead, needless to say, are painted in more or less gruesome detail – some are skeletons, some have flesh and skin visibly peeling from them, along with flies and other signs of mortal decay – Wensley’s remarkable example is again a case in point. This (the fifteenth century in particular) was after all an age of elaborate funerary and tomb sculpture – much of which survives – often rendered in similarly unsparing fashion.
Whether all this says something about a particular taste for the morbid in the later Middle Ages is debatable. The Black Death, the devastating effects of which had been felt in England as elsewhere in the decades after 1350 may have had something to do with the popularity of subjects like the Three Living and the Three Dead. King René (‘le bon Roi René’) of Anjou had himself painted, crowned but otherwise naked and graphically decomposing, as le roi-mort in one of five miniatures added to a Book of Hours¹ which came into his possession when he was a young man in the 1430s. But then again, the additions probably date from the period when René was a prisoner in Dijon and despairing of ever seeing freedom again. But the Three Living and the Three Dead is certainly part of the same collective imagination that caused paintings of the Doom to be made, and its ultimate message is an injunction to be prepared for death, and subsequent Judgement, even in the midst of high and holiday life.
¹Reproduced in John Harthan, Books of Hours & Their Owners, (between pp.89 &96), Thames & Hudson, 1977 (The London Hours of René of Anjou, f.53r. British Library, London, Egerton MSt 1070)