Medieval Art in The Seventh Seal

This year the Bergman centre’s annual ‘Bergman Week’ will be exploring the theme ‘Mind-mapping: The Seventh Seal’, where the historical and iconic themes of the film will be explored. It seems only suitable, then, to look at one of the major historical and iconic imageries of The Seventh Seal. There is no doubt that The Seventh Seal is filled with remarkable images: the vision of the virgin, pilgrim flagellants, the supper of wild strawberries and milk, the burning of the witch, the dance of death, death itself, the chess game.The figure of Death playing chess with a knight has been the image that has defined the film, and since then it has been parodied, copied, a source of inspiration and one of the defining images of Ingmar Bergman. But where did this iconic image come from, and to what extent is it representative of the mindset of people during the Middle Ages?

Painting has long been an inspiration to Bergman. In its early stages, The Seventh Seal was called ‘Painting on Wood’, and was a one-act play directed on a national radio broadcast. It was the first of three very successful productions, and is the story of an unnamed knight returning from a crusade to the Holy Land. Once back, he and his squire meet a girl who tells them the plague is ravaging the countryside. The medieval Sweden portrayed in this movie includes creative errors. The last Swedish crusade took place in 1293 and the Black Death hit Europe in 1348. In addition, the flagellant movement was foreign to Sweden, and large-scale witch persecutions only began in the fifteenth century. While the film is set in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t Bergman’s intention to make a historical or period film.  As it was written in a program note that accompanied the movie’s premiere:

“It is a modern poem presented with medieval material that has been freely handled… the script in particular – embodies a mid-twentieth century existentialist angst… still, to be fair to Bergman, one must allow him his artistic license, and the script’s modernisms may be justified as giving the movies medieval theme a compelling an urgent contemporary relevance… yet the film succeeds to a large degree because it is set in the Middle Ages, a time that can seem both very remote and very immediate to us living in the modern world… Ultimately, The Seventh Seal should be judged as a  historical film by how well it combines the medieval and the modern.”

Despite the fact that Bergman didn’t wish to make a historical film, he was inspired by art from the Middle Ages. As a Lutheran priest, Bergman’s father would preach at various churches and this gave the young Bergman the opportunity to view their artwork. He would study the religious illustrations from the Middle Ages that covered the interiors: “There was everything my imagination could desire – angels, saints, dragons, prophets, devils, humans. All this was surrounded by a heavenly, early, subterranean landscape of a strange yet familiar beauty.” What Bergman saw as a boy were the various church frescos found mostly in southern Sweden. Church frescos are decorative paintings, mostly medieval, found in several Swedish churches. At least 444 such church frescos survive to this day, only a fraction of the original number. These frescos can still be seen in areas around Sweden, but most commonly in Gotland, Uppland, Skåne, and even some in Stockholm.

The piece of artwork that inspired Bergman most of all comes from Täby kyrka, or Täby church, located just north of Stockholm in Uppland. The church was built during the second half of the thirteenth century and was first constructed as a square hall church, but developed over time. The church is best known as one of the churches with paintings by Albertus Pictor (Albert the Painter in English). Albertus Pictor painted many church frescos around Sweden, including at Husby-Sjuolft, Härkeberga, and Solna in Uppland, Uppsala Cathedral, and Storkyrkan in Stockholm.

The interiors of Täby church feature paintings such as Samson breaking the lions jaw, the assumption of the Virgin into heaven, Christ nailed to the cross, and Jonah and the whale. The ceiling frescos are from the 1480s, and, unlike many of his other works, were never whitewashed over, so the paintings in the church today have been untouched. The main inspiration for the paintings was Biblia Pauperum, a collection of events from the Bible. The most famous of the Täby church paintings is death playing chess with a knight, which is the painting that inspired Bergman most of all:

“In a wood sat death, playing Chess with the Crusader. Clutching the branch of a tree was a naked man with staring eyes, while down below stood death, sawing away to his hearts content. Across gentle hills Death led the final dance toward the dark lands. But on the other arch the Holy Virgin was walking in a rose garden, supporting the child’s faltering steps, and her hands were those of a peasant woman… My intention has been to paint in the same way as the medieval painter, with the same tenderness and joy.”

There is no doubt that these church frescos and Albertus Pictor inspired Bergman. The walls of the church visited by Blok and Jöns are covered with paintings, and Albertus Pictor himself appears as a character in the film, and converses with Jöns while working on a church mural. I will now use an example from the film that uses the paintings as a representation of reality. They discuss what the painter is currently working on, which is a dance of death that illustrates the procession of plague victims. Remarking on the depiction of flagellants beating themselves with a whip in the hopes of moving God to mercy, the painter says “the remarkable thing is that the spoor creatures think the pestilence is the Lords punishment. Mobs of people who call themselves ‘Slaves of Sin’ are swarming over the country, flagellating themselves and others, all for the glory of god.” This of course refers to the plague, a major plot element in the film. Barbara Tuchman’s study of the fourteenth century, A Distant Mirror, confirms this image, pointing out that although often sanctioned by the Pope, such processions accompanied the plague and helped to spread it.

They ‘marched from city to city, stripped to the wait, scourging themselves with leather whips tipped with iron sparks until they bled.” The painter points out the small, terrified human face of a character facing death depicted on his church fresco, reflexively referring to the fresco that was the original stimulus of the film. The squire asserts that if the picture asserts that if the picture scares people they will go running ‘right into the arms of the priests.’ The painter justifies it “I have to make a living – at least until the plague takes me’ implying that he follows the churches orders out of financial necessity. In addition to condemning the church, this sequence also highlights the artists easy rejection of his own free will.

In conclusion, the artwork depicted in the churches display a sense of reality in the minds of the people from the Middle Ages. This no doubt came as an inspiration to Bergman, but it must be noted that he never intended to make a historical film. Rather, he took the ideas of those from the past, and interpreted them for a modern audience. The work of Albertus Pictor has remained true and relevant to this day, and it is valuable that these paintings can still be viewed hundreds of years later in churches around Sweden. If ever in Stockholm or Uppsala, I recommend the visit to this amazing church with important cinematic relevance.

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