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The "Three Living Meet Three Dead" Fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco, 1336

Updated: Sep 6, 2023



Some art seems to have a life of its own, its own vitality and presence which can make it seem like a character in its own right. The frescoes of Buonamico Buffalmacco in the Campo Santo at Pisa not only have their own lives, they have also managed resurrection.

I first encountered "The Three Living Meet Three Dead" (along with parts of "The Triumph of Death" and his "Last Judgment" scene, to be covered in later posts) in 2008, shortly after their restoration. In 1944, they were blown to smithereens by an Allied bomb, and it had taken more than 60 years to piece them back together. I can't imagine that process, and the patient optimism it must have entailed. In 2018, the whole cycle's restoration was completed and placed on display, back in its original place.


The frescoes meditate on plague deaths--and Death itself--more than ten years before The Black Death swept the area. Pisa was then a city of enormous naval, economic, and political power, and the Campo Santo was where the elite had buried their dead since the 12th century.


The section I want to point you to in this post is a scene which represents "Memento Mori" in a lavish style which seems more focused on the sumptuousness of the medieval nobility than on death. Death and damnation are dealt with more vividly in the other frescoes.


The Three Dead Meet the Three Living


It doesn't help that the dead in the fresco are contained in a section whose damage couldn't be repaired. However, here they are. The three corpses represent the Three Estates: the Church (the top-most figure, bloated and richly robed); the Nobility (in the center, with a crown); and the Laborers (at the bottom, the poor thing is in rags and doesn't even have a face anymore--it could be he's the most decomposed because he couldn't afford any sort of funerary preparation to preserve him).


There is a religious hermit blocking a path to his monastery up the hill. I would *love* to know what was written on the scroll originally, but it doesn't look as though the nobles are going to get anywhere higher than the bodies blocking their path.


The dead are placed on the wall (the left edge meets a corner and finishes the scene) in such a way as to mark the (literal) end of the line for the glamorous, young hunting party. The royal figure in the central coffin is most closely related to them (even wearing similar robes to the lord who wears a crown among the living). His body graphically signals to the nobility that they are not exempt from death, regardless of how rich and powerful they may be.


Foulness and Finery

And look at this party! Each one has a face that seems to be more portraiture than generic. The ones in front grimace prettily, but at least one is recoiling from the stench.


The Lord and Lady

Worth a closer look: the couple wearing crowns are definitely distressed by the scene they confront. I like the detail of the lady's transparent veil, and her riding crop. The lord appears to have dropped his reins to cover his nose and mouth. His crown rests securely on his very fashionable domed bycocket hat.


Noble Horses Confer

I think the horses steal the show in this fresco. They are more animated and as elegantly groomed as their riders. Those marcelled manes! Their expressions seem to suggest that they, too, are conferring to figure out how to respond to this blockage in the trail. The horse of the lord (brown, far right) sticks out his neck to check out the live snakes, which may be more worrisome to him than the dead bodies. His bridle and bit appear to be studded with gems. The lead noble has exquisite green suede(?) hunting boots, with spurs.



A Dog For Every Circumstance

I'm sorry I couldn't blow this part of the image up further, but I wanted you to appreciate the hunting dogs at everyone's feet/hooves. They, too, are reacting to the bodies, and don't appear to be pleased by the scent they've picked up. I believe that each breed here is used for a different type of quarry--some for chasing, some for retrieving, some for ferreting prey out of bushes. Don't miss the lady's lapdog in the section below.


The Rocky Path

I speculate that the hermit blocking the path up and away from death is holding a list of restrictions for the pursuit of salvation, many of which may require giving up shoes, fancy clothes, and hunting for meat. Above, at the top of the rugged path, we see a hermit milking a...deer? It may be a kind of goat I'm unfamiliar with. Some bestiaries suggest that deer are the natural enemies of snakes. If this idea is being employed in the painting, then religion offers an antidote (deer's milk, penance) which offer a cure for death. Another monk appears to be lamenting or searching for something. Farthest away is the monastery where one can take vows, or pay for intercessory prayers for one's soul.



Demon and Sinner Meet Volcano

The hill opposite the monastery seems to be quite the hell-scape. Demons are dropping souls of the damned (whose clothed bodies are depicted in an adjacent part of the fresco) into a volcano! The demon here is a great hybrid of a wild boar, a bat, and perhaps a goat, but one with an impressive under-bite. The composition overall is balancing culture and nature, the divine and the bestial.


Bringing Up the Rear

Bringing up the rear of the "Three Living" are more nobles with a wide array of bycocket hats, three sporting with falcons, and some servants carrying hunting accoutrements and bagged prey. Oh, and that noble creature in the middle may be a mule. I'm no expert but I wonder whether the box the second man on the left is carrying is some sort of gear for the falcons in it.


Falcons and Falconers

The person carrying the middle falcon appears to be feeding it a leg from a duck (I think). I am intrigued by the ferret-like creature who has captured for itself a species (my best guess) of dove.


She sees You

Here is the figure who most intrigues me. She is the only person who gazes out of the scene and appears to engage the viewer. She has a very sober expression. Only her head and shoulders can be seen--one can't even figure out which horse she may ride. With so much serious drama going on, she is the only figure who seems to have some distance from it, in the emotional sense. I wonder what her presence would have meant to the original audiences.


The Circle of...Life, and Death

Pulling back to look again on the whole scene, there appears to be a counter-clockwise sweep to how the eye scans it. We follow the procession from the right to the left, and are stopped by the Three Dead. Our progress is halted by the hermit, but the ledge (much like the ones described in Dante's Purgatorio) carries our gaze up to the monastery, and is stopped again by the volcano of the damned. The mortal animals lead us back down to the end of the procession. It seems an endless cycle, much like the repeated visits to the Campo Santo cemetery (and this mural) may have seemed to generations of nobles. And so it goes.

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