The Niguliste Museum opens an exhibition introducing the death culture of the Middle Ages and Early Modern era

Art Museum of Estonia
Niguliste Museum

Press Release no. 103
29 October 2012

On Friday, 2 November, the exhibition Ars Moriendi. The Art of Dying will open at the Niguliste Museum. The exhibition examines the commemorative, burial and death culture of the Middle Ages and Early Modern era, by focusing on the depiction of the topic in the ecclesiastical art of the period. The exhibition is accompanied by lectures, curator tours, educational programmes and a spring film programme.

“Preparing for death has been a part of people’s lives throughout the ages. It was believed that the path of the human soul after death was determined by how he or she had died,” said Merike Kurisoo, the curator of the exhibition. “The preparation for medieval death and deathbed rituals were summarised in a treatise entitled Ars Moriendi, or the “art of death”. The text, which was widely distributed starting in the early 15th century, consoled and guided both those who were dying and those caring for them. Ars Moriendi, as the title of the exhibition, paraphrases the original meaning by examining the visual expressions of the burial and commemorative culture.”

The time-frame of the exhibition starts with the Middle Ages and ends with the 18th century, and visual materials from both the Catholic and Lutheran eras are on display. The exhibition also encompasses and interprets the tombstones, epitaphs, coat-of-arms epitaphs, and other works of sacral art that are on permanent display at the Niguliste Museum.

Burial traditions and rituals are revealed by cultural items that date from the Middle Ages to the 18th century: coffin decorations, metal coffins, burial regalia, commemorative publications and much more. The luxurious gold brocade burial garment of Fabian von Fersen, who was buried in the Tallinn Cathedral in 1678, is also on display.

Visitors will also be able to see an engraving from the late 17th century depicting the funeral procession of King Charles X Gustav of Sweden, which is almost four and a half metres long. Also on display is a rare mechanical death figure from 1666, which once decorated the large clock in the choir of the German church in Narva.

The items related to burials provide an idea of how grandiose the send-offs for the departed could be. They also allude to the status of the deceased and denote the funeral traditions of the day. The funeral ceremonies of nobles and royal heads of state involved mourners and spectators from all strata of society. However, the send-offs for ordinary people were much simpler and more modest.

“Death is an inseparable part of life, but the understanding of death and the supernatural, and their importance have changed through the centuries. Death was not final for the people of the Middle Ages and Early Modern era; it was the beginning of a new journey. Moreover, donations to the church, gifts of ecclesiastical art, letters of indulgences, masses for souls, good deeds and prayers helped to pave the road to heaven.” Kurisoo added.

The exhibition includes a film collage comprised of depictions of death, dying and the supernatural from Estonia’s historical feature films. A playful floor map in the Niguliste choir helps to explain the geography of the other world and the destinations of posthumous life. Three wall passages in the Niguliste Museum, which are normally closed to visitors, will be open to the public during the exhibition.

The exhibition has been designed by Liina Siib.

The Art Museum of Estonia thanks the following for their cooperation: the Estonian History Museum, Narva Museum, Pärnu Museum, Tallinn City Museum, Academic Library of Tallinn University, the Congregation of the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin in Tallinn and Tallinnfilm.

The Ars Moriendi. Art of Dying exhibition will be open at the Niguliste Museum until 2 June 2013.

More information:

Merike Kurisoo
Exhibition Curator
Tel.: 5681 2907
Niguliste Museum
Niguliste 3
10146 Tallinn