The Seventh Seal-A Medieval Tale in Cloth, But Nietzsche’s ‘God is Dead’ in Flesh

“Yo so la Muerte cierta a todas criaturas,” “I am Death, known to all creatures,”
– A Spanish danse macabre

The charms of the “The Seventh Seal” were first manifested to me when I was a student at the University of Texas in 1972. Disciples with flutes, some medieval muses, were piping cordial chimes of mirth in our recitation hall, “Have you heard the good news, “The Seventh Seal” is offered up on Friday night at Batts Hall, I’ll be there with ribbons and bows.”

Then, as if in quest of the Holy Grail, I resolved to appear on the occasion. I had been meandering in the direction of medieval studies anyway, took a liking to Arthurian legend, Beowolf, or the fiefdoms of Charlemagne, and rumor was rampant that “The Seventh Seal” contained such antediluvian treasures.

I took my humble presence with the hordes in the university hall that Friday eve, with great anticipation for the Swedish bard of cinema, Ingmar Bergman. Suddenly, an ethereal phantasm flickered forth; I grasped for winsome concord in the shimmering shadows of fleeting dreams, and the contemplation of spirits appeared; the shadow of Death looms as he bargains for souls as prizes to his swarthy fold. ‘Twas a wayfarer who had lost his way in the walls of Dis, where heretics burn throughout eternity. And the primeval forest was teeming with wolves, cunning serpents, and the most grievous plague. But the sprightly song of the comic troupe lifted me up in mirth just for a pause . Then the woeful flagellants’ pouting parade lumbers lazily, the taskmaster’s scolding tongue chastises the meek. A spell was cast over me, I realized in a flash that this world was mine, the one of the Knight and the Squire, and I then vowed to dedicate my studies to the Middle Ages.

My days at UT were fifteen years hence the release of this landmark work in 1957, and it was a cult film by then, fully adored and scrutinized by people seeking cosmic answers.

In those days many of the youth-culture-types would wear medieval costumes, period-fairs sprang up, and events such as midnight screenings of underground films would happen; people frequently would attire themselves as fools, jugglers, or damsels in distress, all in a spirit of fun. I participated in some such events, such as at the Festival Theater in Dallas or the early Eeyores Birthday bashes here in Austin. These were the rituals of Bacchus anew with beating drums, shaking tambours, and/or dancing dervishes, twirling ’bout maypoles (that is the way I remember it). And at the Festival Theater the zany kids, pied-pipers of change, would bounce balloons and toss Frisbees merrily, and a pungent aromatic smoke would tickle the air. A passion bubbled forth in me to dedicate myself to medieval studies, and the inspiration I received from this film contributed to this. The other major source of revelation was Michael Baylor, a professor in the History Department at UT, who taught Renaissance and Medieval European History. I still have my notes from his classes, and review them from time to time. Michael Baylor emphasized intellectual history more often, and inspired me to look at history similarly, as a history of ideas.

“The Seventh Seal” is anything but mod, and its black and white format is worthy for the sharp atheistic pattern that is its heartbeat to the core. As you view it on the surface you see all the trappings of Swedish medieval Christendom, but when you look closer you see something altogether different. A flailing Hegelian dialectic prevails, and two opposing forces, two fiery dragons, act as bookends ‘gainst one another; they hither battle ferociously, but are at wits-end simulating the role as love birds. This is essentially what was occurring in the grander history of ideas, first with St. Augustine, then with St. Thomas Aquinas; how do faith and reason combine in harmony? I am perceiving “The Seventh Seal” as a clever little allegory, an anti-morality play with medieval forms as the cloth, but nihilism as the flesh; a wolf in sheep’s clothing-innocent on the outside, but experienced within! Occam’s razor, or a simple answer is the best way to understand some of the central motifs here. An implicit theme running freely through “A Seventh Seal” is that since the Superpowers are at odds with each other, and since the world could end in a nuclear holocaust at any moment, life is senseless and absurd, there is not really any positive take on anything in this life. The decorum used in the film effectively promotes the above theme with very simple, stark sets, modest costumes, and a jagged and rancorous soundtrack; Eric Nordgren’s music is stirring, you just might think of Bernard Herrmann as a comparison. I will look at a few of the forms present in “The Seventh Seal” and try to make some sense of them.

Athens, a charnel-house reeking to heaven and deserted even by the birds; Chinese towns cluttered up with victims silent in their agony; the convicts at Marseille piling rotting corpses into pits; the building of the Great Wall in Provence to fend off the furious plague-wind; the damp, putrefying pallets struck to the mud floor at the Constantinople lazar-house, where the patients were hauled up from their beds with hooks; the carnival of masked doctors at the Black Death; men and women copulating in the cemeteries of Milan; cartloads of dead bodies rumbling through London’s ghoul-haunted darkness-nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain.

Albert Camus-“The Plague”

Albert Camus’ “The Plague” was published in 1948, and Camus was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. I do not know whether this is a coincidence, but that is the same year that “The Seventh Seal” was released. They are both speaking in similar tongues, and espouse the notion of the ‘hopelessness of life’ when the plague comes to town. I have not done enough research to know whether Ingmar Bergman was a devoted fan of Camus, but I do know that many critics have characterized him (Bergman) as an Existentialist. However, the setting of this movie is The Great Plague (1347-1351) that stimulated the popular imagination, and was viewed with great portend as The End. Froissart’s Chronicles give much detail of these events in France and England. Really, since so many people died, perhaps one-third of the population, it caused shortages of labor, raising the fee for a peasant farmer, and this then fomented rebellion amongst the poor, such as the Peasants Rebellion of 1381 in England. A Revolution of Rising Expectations; thus, when peasants realized they could get more, they in turn expected more. This dissatisfaction was largely due to the fiery preaching of Wat Tyler, who would incite the poor with the abuses of the wealthy landlords. The plague is more hinted at than graphically displayed in the film. The skeleton of a dead monk again comes to mind. The best obvious instance of the plague is Raval, the seminarist, dying a slow death in the forest, and the cast looking on helplessly as he writhes and shimmies, doing the dance of death for his mortal sins. Camus also uses the pestilence of the plague to portray a mortified society in North Africa on the breach of panic and denial; their despair is more a numbing and dearth of feeling, they are reduced to nothing-it’s not really despair, just hollowness. This is what the Knight and Squire see when they look into the eyes of the witch: nothingness!

Ingmar Bergman uses medieval forms to provide a compelling story of skepticism regarding the catholic vision. The occasion of this is the mid-14th century, when the Bubonic Plague took away every third person in western Christendom. At the church the Artist shows the Squire his new frescoes depicting the ravages of plague on all types of folks. Our best source for the Great Plague in Florence is given in Boccaccio’s Decameron. The appearance of black spots, vomiting of blood, the large black buboes that appear in the arm-pits and groin, and then inevitable death after the third day are vividly described in his introduction. Imagine everywhere you gaze, there are bodies of the deceased in the streets of your little village. Mothers weep (or what few are still alive), and displaced children scurry in the streets, then the corpse-gathers cry out: “Throw out your dead,” as petrified love-ones toss the departed on carts bound for quarantine and incineration. Things are getting a little unhinged in your village; maybe the wrath of God is upon us? Or maybe the world itself is about to end. Focus now on Jons the Squire unveiling the cloak of the monk on the beach, and instead he sees a decayed skull as scary as Norman Bates’ mother in the cellar.

Surely the plague must signal the Second Coming, judgment day when all souls will be granted their final verdict, eternal damnation or angelic bliss. The opening scene quotes from the Book of Revelations, and too the commons in the tavern speak of the end. The opening sequence on the beach first: “And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal…there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets, prepared themselves to sound.” Then later in the tavern rustics and clerics utter portents unto themselves: Merchant:”The plague is raging everywhere. People are dying like flies. I can’t sell anything. Barmaid: It’s judgment Day, and the awful omens-A woman has given birth to a calf’s head. People are mad. They flee and take the plague with them. Eat, drink, and be Merry! Many have purged themselves with fire and died. But better than hell, the priests say. No one dares say it aloud, but this is the end. People are crazy with fears. You’re scared yourself. I’ll warrant it. Judgment Day. The angels descend and the graves open. It will be horrible.”

The popularity of Revelations in the mid-fourteenth century is yet another of the medieval forms coveted by Bergman to frame his story. It brings immediacy and symbolism to the events of the day, such as the strawberries and milk feast, a humble Swedish take on the Last Supper. It is also a clever way to introduce the theme of skepticism regarding religion.

Early in the film the image of Death appears playing chess with the Knight. If the Knight can hold his own, he will remain alive. If Death triumphs, he will go the way of parted souls. This game is presented comically but its gravity is cunningly sequestered by casual chit chat. The entire movie is staged around this striking metaphor, and really the action takes place over only one day, as the pensive and downtrodden Knight and his trusted Squire are returning from the Crusades to their nearly forgotten home in Sweden. This image of the chess game was present in medieval art in Sweden in this work by Taby Kyrka, but in this representation Death is a skeleton and his companion resembles a merchant. Bergman’s Death more mimics an Anchorite monk with a ghoulish black cloak and oodles of white cake makeup. He is a veritable hybrid of Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula and Vincent Price’s Egghead on the 1960’s television series “Batman.” Death keeps reminding the Knight in a menacing fashion that he always wins his games of chess.

The procession of flagellants is a distinct medieval form introduced into “The Seventh Seal” to bring immediacy and drama to the film. This ascetic movement saw the Second Coming, or the end of mankind on this earth imminent, if not in just a few seconds from now. This was a reaction to the Great Plague, and is a reasonable one given the circumstances of multiple casualties throughout Europe. This scene with the flagellants, while not an actual phenomenon of fourteenth century Swedish history per se, for the sake of histrionics, is clipped cleverly into the script, according to Peter Cowie, author of “Ingmar Bergman: A Critical Biography.” The existence of this ascetic ritual sect was omnipresent in Italy and other parts of Northern Europe at the time of the Black Death (1347-1351); and in this caliginous epoch both urban and bucolic village life was unraveling at the seams. It is also true that there were no detectable major Crusades evident in mid-fourteenth century Sweden. Nonetheless, with this in the storyline, and the implication that the Knight and Squire were fighting for Christendom ‘gainst the godless Saracens, their returning to a land of trouble raises the pitch of irony to a merciless, plague-ravaged Sweden. Of course, with Bergman’s background in theater, he selected only the best ingredients for his screenplay, choosing tidbits, morsels of medieval melodrama. To the scene, the somber procession breaks up the charades of the comic troupe with chants of doomsday. The bass kettle drums beat ominously, as the smoldering canisters of incense swing about like rusty pendulums, the hordes brief swagger halted. The eerie wails of raggedy clad commons resound. Humble village folk kneel in supplication, their visage racked with guilt and fear. The gnarly faced preacher with a threaded Benedictine cloak, and with the wild rag-scarves chastises; the dangling silver-crossed preacher flogs them orally and vituperates bile: “God is punishing us. We shall all perish by the Black Death…Death is behind your back. His scythe flashes above your heads. Which of you will he strike first? …You are doomed, do you hear? Doomed! Doomed! Doomed!…” The sermonizing of the memento mori or the “reminder of death” is a recurring topic for clerics of the mendicant order. Finally, a birds-eye shot of the fleeing parade, incense smoke billowing, deep voices chanting…trepidations, trembling-woe is me!

An incorporeal interlope of the Mary Cult in an early scene is a cool breeze, when Jof (Nils Poppe) beholds the Virgin and Child in a meadow, the Virgin arrayed in a flowing bliaut and period headdress. Jof has the extra-sensory talent of seeing beyond the pale; he witnesses events in the spiritual realm. Jof and Mia (Bibi Andersson) are remotely allegorical figures, mirrors of Joseph and Mary with a mystical protective force about them. The introduction of the vision early in the film firms up the celestial talents of Jof and may safeguard him and Mia from the curse of the plague. The motif of the Mary Cult, lightly dusted with eroticism, acts as an anchor ‘gainst the dark apparition of Death (Bengt Ekerot) as gleaned by the Knight Antonius Block, (Max von Sydow) otherworldly of course.

The burning of the witch by the soldiers leaves an indelible imprint on the mind. The entourage (the knight, the squire and his girl, Plog the Smith, Jof, and Mia with child) forge through the thick, tangled forest on horse or wagon, a dirge-like commencement undeniably. They run into the execution team, and help them push the witch cart to the rendezvous spot, a misty secluded alcove, for final prosecution. A soldier comments: “The devil is with her.” The prosecutors build up the loose firewood for the hovering conflagration. Death himself makes a brief appearance reminding the Knight of his patient circumspection, a bedeviled pursuit of his utter soul . The youthful Witch girl, played by Maud Hansson, is tied to the ladder that will be inserted in the massive pile of wood for the galling roast. The Knight has a chat with her probing for data on the eternal cosmos. “They say you’ve had commerce with the Devil?” The Knight wants to meet the Devil so that he can see God. The Witch says that he can see the Devil anytime, just by looking in her eyes. Truthfully, when the Knight looks in her eyes he sees nothing. The priests and soldiers see the Devil in her, but not the Knight. The Knight gives her an anodyne to still the pain shortly before her confirmed burning at the stake. The flames rise higher and higher as the proceedings begin. The Witch’s eyes are filled with terror; the strains of soundtrack music accent the sorted affair. The Squire postulates that the girl is discovering emptiness. He comments that there are no angels, God, or Devil-only emptiness. We see what she sees-pure terror!

The question of class structure in “The Seventh Seal” has bubbled to the surface as I have been reviewing “The Structure of Medieval Society” by Christopher Brooke. I thought it would be telling to try to observe if Bergman scientifically portrays the social classes (by the book, mind you) in their clear, original medieval forms. There are no detectable references to Popes, Kings, or Barons as such, and the Knight himself is of humble standing. From the evidence of the story all of the characters appear to be from the lower estates; such as say, Plog the smith, the Church Painter, or Raval the nefarious seminarist. As to whether this is intentional or accidental, one can only speculate? Certainly, it would be imprudent to suggest that this film has a Marxist message, nor does it comment in any noticeable way on medieval social structure per se, but perhaps there is a subconscious or subliminal message in the film that belies a proletarian ethos. Marxism is not easily traceable in the footage, but the after-dew of a socialist curry is palate-lingering. Things remain folksy and simple throughout; remember the homey meal with strawberries and milk or the terraqueous drinking raucous in the tavern scene. Keep in mind that the theme of the leveling of the social classes by the plague is clearly expressed in the common art of Tuscany, and that these references are sprinkled graciously on the movie. More than one third of the population was wiped out as a result of the plague, and do not forget that just as easily the worms would devour the flesh of the secular nobles and church fathers too. I visited Pisa in 2000, and saw the frescoes of the Master of the Triumph of Death, showing the carcasses of lords o’erwhelmed with crawling worms! I was racked by the frescoes, and realized that the Black Death had its crestfallen grip on the natives of Tuscany in the mid-fourteenth century, such that there was an omnipresent gloom that permeated all their days, and each felt as if their present moment would certainly be their last one!

In a later locale, as Death comes to take away souls at the Knight’s house, the Squire’s girl says: “it is finished.” Indeed, the end is here for the lot of them. The final instance of the movie opens with Jof and Mia together on the beach. Mia looks out angelically at the fresh morn, the birds chirp chimerically, and the ocean rays beam brightly. Jof has an interlude of clairvoyance: “I see them Mary! Over there against the stormy sky. They are all there. The Smith and Lisa, the Knight, Raval, Jons, and Skat. And the strict master Death bids them dance. He wants them to hold hands…and to tread the dance in a long line. At the head goes the strict master with the scythe and hourglass. But the fool brings up the rear with his lute. They move away from the dawn…in a solemn dance away towards the dark lands…while the rain cleanses their cheeks, of the salt from their bitter tears. All the while a chorus of murky monks chant in the background ‘gainst Jof’s words.

The medieval form of the danse macabre is handled delicately by Bergman. In art and literature the danse macabre has an array of characters from the social stations. Guyot Marchand in a 1486 publication with woodcuts includes the Pope, a noble, and skeletons. The source for this was the 1424 wall painting from the Hall of Columns in the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris (“The Vision of Death”-The Autumn of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga). Primarily these representations included Death, the pope, the emperor, the nobleman, the day laborer, the monk, a small child, and a fool. In contrast, the movie only has people from the lower estates; not to ascribe more significance to this than is necessary, but it is observable, this proletarian panoply of shadow, as the danse macabre unfolds. Also, in the art of Hans Holbein we see the smoothing down of the upper orders by Death; all will meet the same fate as the curtain falls. In the very last shot of “The Seventh Seal” we see the miraculous shot of the hand-holding caravan of silhouetted souls, and all of them are common people. This is a new take on the danse macabre, theatrical, lyrical, and cinematic too!

The Seventh Seal is inextricably injected with symbolism and allegory; Bergman is simply playing along with these forms that are prevalent in art and literature of the late Middle Ages. You can view the whole movie as an allegorical morality play, something akin to Piers Plowman, where every character represents an abstract vice or virtue. Let me sketch a fanciful scenario, and realize this is not etched in stone. You may want to formulate your own list of character/atributes and see what you come up with! Lisa would be Lust, Raval is Avarice, the Knight is lost salvation seeking God through Lady Philosophy, Mia is Mother Mary (duhh!), Jof is Joseph, the Church Painter is Visual Truth, the Witch represents Misunderstanding, the Squire mirrors Existential Reality, and Skat resembles the Doomed Fool etc…Bergman, no doubt, had the tradition of medieval church allegory at his command when he wrote this quirky little script. This is a very clever little film play, mostly fourteenth century, but with a twentieth century message.

When using the term Symbolism, I prefer to think of this loaded word in a visual context; that is, that images are used in the film to sharpen some medieval forms significantly in the shape of their original bravura, and this reinforces the veracity of the film as a period piece of medieval Dom. When dwelling on this term of symbolism, and while we are careful to use a remote or even mystical frame of mind, we are reminded that there is the literal aspect of the image, then afterwards its inner meaning, be it religious or at other times philosophic. By way of reference, in the flagellant scene the camera focuses singularly on the wooden Christ effigy that the devotees carry with a brutal burden. The symbolism is the suffering of Christ, revealed in the tormented eyes, crown of thorns, and trickle of blood from the forehead. Similarly, the flagellants suffer and struggle in this age (mid fourteenth century Sweden), whipping themselves in preparation for the Second Coming. The barefaced visage of Death playing chess with the Knight conjointly conjures to the surface of frail memory. The translation or meaning for the viewer would be: we struggle daily to remain alive, and we have to defeat irksome Death one pawn or bishop move at a time, but he will remain all our days to tax our souls. Truly, his scythe-toting malevolence will probably prevail at the end of the day, as the hourglass sands sift through to the final granule. Symbols are ubiquitous throughout the film, such as the strawberries and milk, the plethora of startling, white skulls on the sets, or the apparition of Madonna and Child experienced in a daydream vision by Jof. These images tend to persuade you of the authenticity of the story, that you are really in the Swedish countryside in nearly 1350. I have been marveling at the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer, and specifically: Knight, Death, and the Devil-1513-1514, where Death is holding an hourglass and his countenance gawks irreverently from the grooves of the woodcut. I would suggest that Bergman’s Death is more a figure from a Samuel Beckett play, such as the tramp in Waiting For Godot, stylishly modern in appearance, and may represent emptiness or nihilism-the threat that after you die there will be nothing for all eternity.

“Do we not wander through an endless Nothingness?” The Joyful Wisdom-Friedrich Nietzsche

The setting of The Great Plague (1347-1351) in Sweden was particularly chosen by Ingmar Bergman when constructing the screenplay. This is a very bleak landscape indeed, where plague and pestilence rule the day. The burned-out countryside, dotted with skulls, empty chapels, and wayward waifs revivifies Hiroshima, a cardinal, catastrophic event, a nightmare that had rampaged Japan some twelve years prior to this 1957 movie. When the Knight takes confession, his priest is unveiled to be Death himself, a paling irony when Antonius Block lost in the confessor’s cell, fathoms mere emptiness in his sinful soul. The infiltration of the church by Death, who here more mirrors the blasphemy of nihilism, by way of a symbolic image, rather than an evil curse of the Devil, and verily this signifies a decline of the church and religion. According to William Barrett, author of Irrational Man, first published in 1958, a primer that I have carried with me for countless years, the decline of the church and religion is the trumpet blast of the Existentialists. And so the knight is a lonely soul who seeks spiritual sustenance, but is somberly smitten with wormwood. The themes of Existentialism is rearing its gnarly coconut in these early scenes; “God Is Dead!” is the subliminal message between the cracks, craftily filtered through medieval forms, such as the crippling plague or the withering witch who only cries out in despair, solitude, and dripping with fear-no real devil curse is upon her, just the curse of idiocy and superstition. “God Is dead!” does not scream from the rafters, as such in Rosemary’s Baby, but is subtly woven in the story. My very last thought is that the character of Death represents Nietzsche’s “Will To Power”; this is his world and he presides over it. The beautiful thing about this film is that you can continue to tweak the meaning of it, it has that kind of elasticity!

John Kays
John Kays identifies timeless remnants from our past that will endure, or be admired by future generations.