The Funeral of  St. Fina
 Dominco Ghirlandaio 1486

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

The ARS MORIENDI “art of dying,” is a genre of Christian literature that provided spiritual guidance to both the dying and the those who attended them.  Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, brought with him to the Council of Constance (1414–1418) a brief essay, de Arte moriendi which probably inspired the numerous, anonymous Ars Moriendi treatises that rapidly proliferated throughout Europe until the eighteenth century.  The earliest texts exist in two different versions. The first is a longer treatise of six chapters that provides exhortations, meditations, rites and prayers to be used at the time of death. The second is a brief, illustrated pamphlet that depicts the dying person’s struggle with temptations and attainment of a good death.

[In the early 1600s] Cardinal Bellarmine provided what might be called and updated version of this traditional text But it is well known, that in his old age and in the holy calm of solitude, whither he had retired to prepare his soul for death he composed several excellent spiritual treatises. Among these, the “Art of Dying Well,” will be found to contain many sublime and practical lessons, on the most important of all arts. It is written with a beautiful simplicity, unction, and strength of reasoning, supported by many apposite quotations from the sacred Scripture and the Fathers. The remarks on the “Sacraments” are especially valuable.

The longer Latin treatise survives in numerous manuscripts and translations.  An English translation of the longer treatise appeared around 1450 under the title The Book of the Craft of Dying.


The first chapter praises the deaths of good Christians and repentant sinners who die “gladly and wilfully” Because the best preparation for a good death is a good life, Christians should “live in such wise . . . that they may die safely, every hour, when God will” however, deathbed repentance can yield salvation.

The second chapter presents five temptations and their corresponding “inspirations” or remedies:

1. temptation against faith versus reaffirmation of faith;

2. temptation to despair versus hope for forgiveness;

3. temptation to impatience versus charity and patience;

4. temptation to vainglory or complacency versus humility and recollection of sins; and

5. temptation to avarice or attachment to family and property versus detachment.

 This scheme accounts for ten of the eleven illustrations in the block book Ars Moriendi , where five scenes depict demons tempting the dying man and five others portray angels offering their inspirations.

The third chapter of the longer treatise prescribes “interrogations” or questions that lead the dying to reaffirm their faith, to repent their sins, and to commit themselves fully to Christ’s passion and death.

The fourth chapter asks the dying to imitate Christ’s actions on the cross and provides prayers for “a clear end” and the “everlasting bliss that is the reward of holy dying” (Comper 1977, p. 31).

In the fifth chapter the emphasis shifts to those who assist the dying, including family and friends. They are to follow the earlier prescriptions, present the dying with images of the crucifix and saints, and encourage them to repent, receive the sacraments, and draw up a testament disposing of their possessions. In the process, the attendants are to consider and prepare for their own deaths.

In the sixth chapter the dying can no longer speak on their own behalf, and the attendants are instructed to recite a series of prayers as they “commend the spirit of our brother” into God’s hands.

The shorter, illustrated Ars Moriendi circulated mainly as “block books,” with pictures and text printed from carved blocks of wood;. The text concludes with a triumphant image of the good death. The dying man is at the center of a crowded scene. A priest helps him hold a candle in his right hand as he breathes his last. An angel receives his soul in the form of a naked child, while the demons below vent their frustration at losing this battle. A crucifixion scene appears to the side, with Mary, John, and other saints. This idealized portrait thus completes the “art of dying well.”

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