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The “revenants” in the Western imaginary

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The three living and the three dead(The three living and the three dead, the fifteenth century: undead putrescent but aggressive.)

The most common concept of the zombie in the works of contemporary fiction, namely the partially decomposed corpse that feeds on human flesh, does not drift voodoo folklore, but a vision of the undead that haunt the Western imagination long ago and manifested itself with particular force in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, well before the advent of cinema.

The belief in ghosts has grown among men as soon as they became aware of the death and began to conceive an existence after death. Contrary to a commonly received in the present, the distinction between the purely material undead and spiritual undead (ghosts) was much less clear than it is now among the peoples of antiquity and the Middle Age. In the imagination of the old West, the spectra do not necessarily looked like living men, but could instead have the look of corpses. According to the writer Lucian of Samosata, who lived in the second century AD, Greeks and Romans sometimes represented revenants haunting cemeteries like reanimated skeletons covered in black robes. A Breton folk tale collected by Anatole Le Braz in the late nineteenth century tells the story of a gravedigger accidentally breaking the chest of a dead man digging a grave. After nightfall, the deceased’s corpse visits him in his house, so bitterly reproached his act, and in order to impress him more, he shows his chest. This is only a greenish slurry which emerge fragments of broken ribs. The revenant seems in full decay, clearly more material than spiritual. Through these folk beliefs of old Europe, we see already appear the image of the zombie as develop in the horror movies from Night of the Living Dead.

Hans Baldung Grien, The Knight, the Young Girl and Death(Hans Baldung Grien, The Knight, the Young Girl and Death. A horror scene close to those of modern films)

In the fourteenth century, during the high mortality caused by the great epidemic of plague of 1348, this popular figure of the ghost was recovered by painting within the macabre dances and many illustrations of The three living and the three dead (telling the story of meeting three young lords with three undead more or less rotten). Originally, it was to encourage people, by the spectacle of decay and horror of the body, to turn away from worldly goods and embrace a moral ideal more or less inspired by the ascetic renunciation of monks . However, from the fifteenth century, these paintings and macabre drawings turned away more and more of their original purpose and they especially began to illustrate stories of ghosts, with no real moralistic or religious intent.

Around 1497, Albrecht Dürer perform an engraving titled Incabus or Woman attacked by Death. The latter represents a lively bearded corpse, starting to decompose, who assaults a woman terrified and tried to lift her dress. Dürer also engraved a representation of The three living and the three dead where the three ghosts are putrescent corpses, instead of giving a simple moral lesson to the three young lords overturn violently their horses and try to kill them. One of the most important disciples of Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien, engaged in the same vein disease and he did not hesitate to outbid in gruesome scenes. In one of his paintings titled The Knight, the Young Girl and Death, now in the Louvre, he shows a knight trying to evade an unfortunate young girl from the clutches of a horrible almost completely rotted corpse, the flesh members falling apart while his belly open blurts blackish belly. Unfortunately, despite its efforts, the revenant snatches his beloved by biting her dress viciously, as if to devour. We are thus in the presence of a horror scene exactly comparable to those of contemporary movies with zombies, especially since we can not know if the reanimated corpse is death or just a dead: indeed, it lacks the usual attributes of the grim reaper, ie false, spear or hourglass. In the same vein, Hans Baldung Grien also executed a painting entitled Death and the Woman. A woman is seen naked and chubby assaulted by a terrible corpse rot in full and face reduced to a skull, which bites the chin and visibly ready to eat. Again, it is clear that Baldung Grien has given his work two meanings: the ghost may be the Grim Reaper, but it can also be a regular undead who simply attack an innocent victim.

In the macabre art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, it could signal other paintings in the same style. The Triumph of Death by Brueghel the Elder, for example, represents the invasion of the world by an army of ghosts emerged from their graves and conducted by the grim reaper itself. Most of them are reanimated skeletons, but we can also see in their ranks half rotten corpses still covered with flesh or parchment skin. Under the direction of their terrible queen, they massacred every living they find before them. This work has no real religious dimension: God is absent, as is the Christian perspective of the resurrection of the flesh. One has the impression that the artist has just delivered a musing on the fate of the earth if it had to face the sudden resuscitation of the dead sleeping in cemeteries. Thereby Brueghel truly announced the major theme of many zombie movies made since 1968: the conquest of the land by ghosts that decimate the living.

As can be seen, the Western popular imaginary includes, for a long time, zombies creatures similar to modern horror films. The latter drew much on this folk funds, far more than in the beliefs related to voodoo. It should be noted that art historians do not use the term zombie for rotten undead staged by the macabre art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Indeed, this notion seems anachronistic and prefer to refer to it as “numb”. Nevertheless, by their obvious relationship with the monsters represented by George A. Romero and his successors, it is already regarded as the ancestors of zombie horror films from the late 1960s.

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