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Three Living and Three Dead

frequently skeletons encounter horseback

One of several themes concerning the inevitability of *death, especially popular in the later Gothic period, the tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead was developed in French poetry of the thirteenth century and enjoyed a widespread literary and artistic dissemination in manuscript illustration, wall painting, and woodblock prints. The salient episode most frequently illustrated in art involves the encounter between three living men (frequently dressed as youthful aristocrats, often on horseback) and three skeletons or corpses in varying stages of decay. The skeletons speak to the living and announce, “What you are, we once were. What we are, you will become.” The shock of this surprising and sobering encounter may also be registered by the horses who back away from the skeletons, and the youths’ falcons or hunting dogs, who flutter or run away. Although the number of living and dead figures may vary, three of each are most common (perhaps because of an association with the three kings of the New Testament, also on horseback, frequently crowned;. For related imagery,

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