Freedom from Purgatory through Music and Art

 Musicologist Dr. Jane Hatter presented on the uses of music and art in 15th century European funerals sponsored by the Medieval and Renaissance Studies research group.

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 29, 2016)—The tomb of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, is a site of perpetual mourning. His coffin is surrounded by various sculpted figures in attitudes of profound grief. Included are members of the Duke’s family, priests and, most importantly to Jane Hatter, associate professor of musicology at Snip20160930_4the University of Utah, choirboys and cantors.

“They express the various attitudes of their sorrow including wiping tears away from their eyes and stabilizing themselves on the columns,” said Hatter of the mourning statues. “But what music would they have heard as they made their journey to the final resting place of their beloved Duke? What were the cantors singing?”

Hatter then played a section of rich polyphonic music, the multi-voice harmonies that characterized funerary music during the 15th century. She explained that these sorts of harmonies were often improvised on top of liturgical plainchant, which was the simplest form of multi-voice music of the time period. While improvisation over chant was fairly common, the music was hardly ever written down. Hatter explained that these early memorial compositions, like Requiem Masses and prayer motets, were innovations that allowed an individual to personalize a performance.

Funerary music, like the sculptures at the tomb of Philip the Bold, was also functional. Often, Hatter said, groups of cantors would gather around a dying individual and sing to guide them through the hora mortis – the hour of death. This was also a way in which the soul of the dying individual could be recommended to God, especially if their name was inserted in the musical phrase.

The funerary music was also a direct connection with the Catholic notion of purgatory, a place where unworthy souls were tormented to clean them of their sins so they could live with God. “Fifteenth century memorial culture hinges on the concept of purgatory,” Hatter said. “Purgatory was a very real place to 15th-century people.”

The fear of one’s ancestors suffering in purgatory inspired prayers, almsgiving, the sacrifice of the mass, and fasting for 15th-century Europeans as each of these acts was thought to decrease the time of relatives in purgatory. “It was also these sorts of concerns about death and purgatory that supported the creation of beautiful donor paintings,” commented Hatter.

Donor paintings of this time period would often include a scene of the Virgin Mary and Christ with the patron of the painting depicted in a worshipful fashion near the scene.  “Innumerable paintings and sculptures from 15th-century Snip20160930_1Europe commemorate the passing of individual men and women by including their image in a prayerful stance,” Hatter explained, “keeping them current in the minds and before the eyes of their progeny after death.”

Referring to the figures surrounding the tomb of Philip the Bold, Hatter said, “Like the exquisitely carved forms of the mourners, these musical creations capture in sound the range of expressions of grief possible in the 15th and 16th centuries from extremely personal and specific to generic, and yet, no less poignant, inextricably connecting the living with the dead.”

Hannah Sandorf (BA Art History and Curatorial Studies ‘17)

Hannah covers events for the Comparative Arts and Letters Department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

first image: Mourners from the Tomb of Philip the Bold. Attributed to Claus Sluter from between 1390-1406

second image: Gerard David, “Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor (Richard de Visch van der Capelle, cantor of St. Donatian in Bruges)” c. 1510. Oil on oak, 105.8 x 144.4 cm. Housed at the National Gallery, London.