Trilogy of Death, Part I

The grisly Death Hunt isn’t far from us.  Our Black-Clad Hunters will be tasked to find all sorts of skulls, from Death overlooking 17th C Dutch Vanitasscenes, Egyptian Mummies, Roman Sarcophagi, and there’s even a silver ‘skull clock’, as seen below. To merge the two in a single object makes sense as both time (and the fact that with each passing day, all of our time is running out) and skulls are typical Memento Mori motifs. These scary skull-clocks are a great discovery in the Objet d’Art section of the Louvre – on the 1stfloor, just off IM Pei’s enormous escalator unifying 3 levels of Richelieu (oh boy, I think that might have been a give-away!). Protestant clock-making centers like Blois made a lot of these skull-clocks, a reminder that a handful of Skull Scouting treasures also overlap with the All Things Gaul hunt.



18th century Memento Mori Clock, Paris, Louvre

So which piece of treasure is the king of the hunt, the Master of the Morbid? They’re all so gloriously ghoulish it’s hard to choose which to give-away. So as a process of elimination, which piece is inextricably tied to the history of Paris? 

La Morte St Innocent fits this bill beautifully, both for Skull Scouting as well as “All Things Gaul” as he is quintessentially French. La Morte is the lynchpin of Parisian Death – the epitome of just how macabre Medieval Paris got. Apart from Death’s appearance and adjoining plaque (which reads “There is not a single being alive, however cunning and strong in resistance, whom I will not slay with my dagger & give to the Worms as their Pittance!”) his birthplace is key to setting the tone of central Medieval Paris.



La Morte St Innocents, 16th C French, Alabaster, Louvre


Before examining Death itself, which deserves a post unto itself and will be the third of this three-part series let’s have a look at where he’s from: Cimitière des Innocents which was also the birthplace of La Danse Macabre.



Dance of Death (woodcut) Hans Holbein the Younger, 1491 (German printed edition, folio CCLXI recto from Hartman)


Named for the Massacre of Innocents (St Innocents was the same name of an adjoining church, once facing rue St Denis), Cimitière des Innocents (CDI) had been housing the dead since Gallo-Roman days. Originally outside the city walls, as the city expanded it ended up smack dab in the center of town (where current-day place Joachim-du-Bellay is). It was where rue St Denis and rue Berger meet, and abutted Paris’s famed central Market, Les Halles. In the 12th century it was still a perfectly orderly graveyard, with an individual space allotted per body. By the 13th century it was the graveyard for Paris’s parishes without cemeteries as well as a dumping ground for the dead of the nearby hospital, Hôtel Dieu (which, if facing Notre Dame, is directly to your left – to escape the throngs of ND goggling tourists you can always dip into Hôtel Dieu’s peaceful plant-filled courtyard).  But back to Medieval France – With so many incoming dead CDI was starting to ooze. Soon it would grow to a festering sore, Paris’s pussing pustule emitting ghastly gasses.



image taken from Cadrans solaires disparus  (michel.lalos.free.fr)

How could it not? While Paris grew, the CDI plot of 135 meters x 65 meters did not. Moreover the number of deaths due to famines, wars (100-Years War, the 30-Years War), let alone the Plague were enough to send heads spinning. During several bouts of the plague in the 14th Century an estimated 800 people died a day in Paris, the Plague of 1418 poured nearly 50,000 dead into CDI over a five-week period, in 1466 another 40,000 perished in Paris. With the swelling of such numbers, mass graves were created. They’d leave a pit open till 1500 cadavers filled each crevice, then close it off for the worms to do their decomposing jobs, filling another 1500-body pit just inches over.



Plan de Turgot, de 1730

Imagine the stench of your Saturday morning marketing – how could the Crown allow such (un-)sanitary conditions to co-exist? That’s your Hallowe’en cliff-hanger for the day. I’ll continue this gory CDI glory tomorrow, and shall get us back to the Master of the Morbid! Thus, hopefully, auguring the spirit of Halloween (smiley-face, exclamation mark)! 

Things in bold tend to refer to bonus questions…