Memento Mori: The Art of Death and Mourning: “I was well fair, such shall you be”
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“I was well fair, such shall you be.”
One of the earliest examples of the Danse Macabre comes from the story of “The Three Living and the Three Dead.” While its precise origins are a mystery, most scholars trace the theme to thirteenth-century murals, illuminations, and poetry. A representation of this iconography can be found in the De Villers Book of Hours (circa 1480); three living kings are confronted with three dead kings. This illumination illustrates the “Office of the Dead” section of the family prayer book which outlined the Catholic last rites to be read for the dying. While the De Villers illumination of the “Three Living” does not have accompanying text, it was so iconic that viewers of the fifteenth century would have recognized the common story. The most common text follows, along with the original Middle English:
‘I am afraid’ (Ich am afert),
‘Lo, what I see!’ (Lo whet ich se),
‘Methinks these be devils three’ (Me þinkes hit bey develes þre).
And the Three Dead reply:
‘I was well fair’ (Ich wes wel fair),
‘Such shall you be’ (Such schel tou be),
and ‘For God’s love, beware by me’ (For godes love bewer by me).
(from the De Lisle Psalter at the British Library Arundel MS 83 c 1308)