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The Three Living and the Three Dead

A recurring theme in medieval art is “The Three Living and the Three Dead.” You’ll find it over and over, a scene in which three normal people encounter three walking corpses, or skeletons, or spirits of some kind who are obviously dead, but still acting as if they live.

The precise origins of the Three Living and the Three Dead are still somewhat mysterious, but there are many versions of the tale dating back to the 13th century, with the best-known coming from England and France.  The basic version of the story goes like this: three young noblemen are out hunting when they suddenly come across three corpses, which are in varying states of decay, but nonetheless still animated.  Unsurprisingly, the young men express shock and dismay at the sight, while the three corpses admonish them to consider the transience of life and to improve their behaviour before it is too late.

In art, the three zombies often resemble the three living, in dress, size, and/or posture. It works as memento mori, a reminder that we all face death eventually. See quite a few examples of this art at the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog. -via the Presurfer


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