Weird Norfolk: Norfolk’s Memento Mori

The rood screen depicting scenes from the 'Danse Macarbe' at St Mary the Virgin Church at Sparham. P

The rood screen depicting scenes from the 'Danse Macarbe' at St Mary the Virgin Church at Sparham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

'Remember that you must die,' is the literal translation of Memento Mori and reflects the Christian theory of considering one's own mortality in order to lead a better, less selfish life in order to escape eternal punishment at judgement day.

The skeletons from the Three Living and the Three Dead medieval wall painting at Wickhampton Church.

The skeletons from the Three Living and the Three Dead medieval wall painting at Wickhampton Church. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

The idea of thinking about the transience of life dates back to Socrates who claimed that the practice of philosophy is 'about nothing else but dying and being dead' and throughout history, Memento Mori have been presented in many forms, from actual skulls kept on desks to gravestones, jewellery to stained glass and artwork.

In Norfolk, there are many examples of Memento Mori to be spotted, all of which bid the viewer to consider the fact that death could be around the next corner and that knowledge should shape the way we live our lives right now.

At St Andrew's in Wickhampton, there is a wonderful wall painting which depicts the age-old legend of the three living and the three dead, which is thought to date back to French manuscripts from the 13th century. The legend involves three dead men meeting with three rich men – a duke, a count and a prince – and the latter being terrified by the encounter.

The dead, who represent the church, beg the living to repent: 'Such as I was you are and such as I am you will be. Wealth, honour and power are of no value at the hour of your death.'

Thomas Gooding memorial inside Norwich Cathedral.
Picture: Nick Butcher

Thomas Gooding memorial inside Norwich Cathedral. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher


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A common wall painting in churches which accompanied the dance of death, the legend used the contrast of hideous, rotting corpses to rich noble men to illustrate that even the richest men must die and that rich and poor are equal in death. In Britain, the theme became popular after the Black Death in 1348 and the Wickhampton painting shows the nobles hunting and then stumbling upon the corpses, the third of whom warns 'prepare to follow me'.

A more famous example can be found on the south side of the nave at Norwich Cathedral, where the grinning skeleton memorial to Thomas Gooding marks the place where he was buried vertically in order to make his ascent to heaven swifter. His epitaph offers food for thought: 'As you that do this place pass bye, remember death for you will dy. As you are now even so was I and as I am so shall you be. Thomas Gooding here do staye, wayting for God's judgement day.'

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Gooding was an artist who was responsible for a number of monuments in Norfolk, including one nearby to his own for Dean George Gardiner – did he create his own, before death?

St Mary's Church in Sparham boasts an impressive Memento Mori on a 16th century rood screen which depicts a particularly dapper pair of skeletal messengers in the Danse Macabre.

There are two surviving sections of the dado to the rood screen which date from 1480 and now rest against the north aisle wall. One section shows St Thomas of Canterbury and St Walstan, the other section has the two Dance of Death panels, one of which shows a skeleton in a shroud, standing in a coffin and pointing to a font, the other a pair of smiling corpses dressed in finery, the woman offering a flower to the man, who is carrying a staff.

Both panels offer similar warnings to the living about taking life for granted from the Book of Job. Passages from the Book of Job were read in the Offices for the Dead, the liturgy performed over bodies as part of the wake or all-night vigil before Requiem Mass on the day of burial.

The passages offer a reminder that as a result of Adam's sin, all humans are born to die but by dying with Jesus in baptism, we have hope of new life while another illustrates the brevity of life: 'Nunc est nunc non est quasi flos qui crescit in arvo (Now he is, how he isn't, like a flower growing in a field)'.

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