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The Cover
November 17, 1999

The Death of St Clare

JAMA. 1999;282(19):1798. doi:10.1001/jama.282.19.1798

Death was a constant theme in medieval painting, as it was in life. Life was, after all, uncertain, death sure, and old age rare. Inadequate living conditions such as lack of shelter, sanitation, and poor or nonexistent safety standards were accompanied by a general lack of medical insight into disease processes and transmission. This only increased the burden already borne by the population because of war, famine, pestilence, violent crime, and—specific to the female half of the population, when and if they reached their reproductive years—childbirth. Yet some of the greatest works in the entire history of Western art belong to this period. For example, Albrecht Dürer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse of 1498 and Matthias Grünewald's unsurpassed Isenheim Altar of 1515 came out of this preoccupation with death. Still others, such as (cover ), completed a century earlier by the unknown Austrian Master of Heiligenkreuz, were quiet, peaceful scenes of death and dying. So common were these deathbed scenes that they could be considered almost a genre in themselves. Most of the works were intended as textbooks for the illiterate, instructing, admonishing, edifying, comforting, or, as in the case of the Clare painting, solacing. Some, such as the Isenheim Altar, were even considered to have therapeutic powers. (Andrée Hayum. The Isenheim Altarpiece: God's Medicine and the Painter's Vision. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1989.)

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