Story behind "Tournaments Illuminated" cover art

A discussion of the cover art of the Fall 2006 issue of Tournaments Illuminated, the quarterly publication of the Society for Creative Anachronism, led to an explanation by the artist, Sean P. Clancy.

Sean P. Clancy writes:

Greetings, Donal Mac Ruiseart (and others interested in 'what's behind' the latest Tournaments Illuminated cover)

There is, indeed, a literary and legendary reference. "The Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead" is a memento mori dating back to around the 13th Century. It was primarily an iconographic image - gaining widespread popularity around (& slightly before) the time of "The Danse Macabre". Unlike its more famous cousin it has passed out of the general usage ...

"The Legend" consists of a dialogue between three living men and three corpses. The living were usually depicted as nobles (sometimes kings- although there are a few where one of the living is portrayed as a woman). The dead were sometimes also 'crowned' but not always (and, in some versions ecclesiastics). The dialogue is the old standard, "Ooo- you think you are so great, important, rich, & attractive... well, take a look at me- I was the same as you now I'm a rotting corpse - it'll happen to you, too, big shot." With the (usually implied) - "but you are still alive and have the chance to repent and lead a virtuous life." In some versions the dead are mute and a monk is added to admonish the living. In later examples, the dead seem to give up completely the idea of communicating via words and simply attack the living as they ride by.

Now, to my version...

  • "The cadaverous figures" are the above mentioned 'dead'
  • The others are, of course 'the living'. I have chosen to give them a little more personality than they were usually given in the wall paintings. The older man (red hat, goatee) is the most frightened at the concept- being (at least in his mind) the closest to death (and thus the one with the least time to act upon the message). The fellow in the blue and green is off-put by the appearance of the corpses and is at an age where he's not completely sure he wants to be bothered by heeding anything they have to tell him. The kneeling figure realizes that, as a fighting man, he is actually close to death frequently and seems to be the only one of the three who is taking any of it to heart.

As this is the fall/end of year issue, I thought it was a good time to reflect (no matter what one's personal beliefs) on the end of one thing, the beginning of another... having one's life in some sort of order... the usual year-end stuff...

Hope this clarifies (at least a bit)

Sean P Clancy

note- I've known the basics of this tale for years (due to a long time interest in the Black Death)... there are several web-references about it (several with pictures) my favorite being:

Also check: (Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry) (De tribus regibus mortuis) (female 'living'... & mention of hermits) (I'm particularly fond of the ?berlingen & the Bregninge)

Thanks for the interest

As the Editor of TI I would like to say how glad I am to see the interest in the story behind this cover.

Sheik Omar
Editor, TI