Virtual Voices

Lovers Surprised by Death, by Burgkmair

Faith & Inspiration

Our culture is obsessed with Halloween, to the tune of five billion dollars a year. This is not a sign of cultural health. Nevertheless, here is a Halloween-worthy piece of art found in the St. Louis Art Museum.

Lovers Surprised by Death is certainly not cute like kittens or pretty like a sunset. However, this piece is useful for discussing the reality of death and the need for spiritual preparation in this life.

The artist is Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531), a German painter and woodcutter during the beginning period of the Protestant Reformation. Burgkmair most likely was a student of the great Albrecht Dürer, who gave financial support to the German reformers. Burgkmair witnessed momentous religious, political, and social upheaval. Near the end of his life, he observed the "Peasant's War," which saw the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of fellow Germans.

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Although Burgkmair is not widely known, Lovers Surprised by Death has enjoyed popularity---in spite of the macabre scene it depicts.

What is the message of this piece?

First, there exists a spiritual world. In the picture, the buildings are real. The woman and the soldier are real. And the skeletal, winged creature---death personified---is real. The picture brings an artistic visibility to the reality of the invisible spiritual world. Philosophers debate and skeptics scoff, but the reality of a spiritual world forms the foundation of any Christian worldview. Denying that unseen things are real is to deny the very existence of the spiritual world---to deny the very existence of God.

Second, the painting depicts death opening the throat of the soldier in order to pull out his soul. How creepy, and yet, the point is made---to be human is to have a soul. Mountains of books have been written debating this point, but the Bible is clear on this point. Jesus said, "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).

Third, death awaits all of us, and no one escapes. One of Satan's original lies was, "You will not surely die" (Genesis 3:4). However, just two chapters later we read the genealogical record with the repetitive phrase, "and he died," striking us with the reality that to be born is to begin to die. And there is no reincarnation. "And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).

But why is there death in a God-created world? The woodcut depicts a soldier and a young woman in the streets of a wealthy city---perhaps Venice or Florence in Italy. They come with the title, "lovers." You can decide for yourself, but many have interpreted this as a depiction of an illicit pair of lovers, maybe even a soldier with a prostitute. If so, this leads us to a fourth point of observation. Physical death is a direct consequence of sin - a punishment for disobedience against God.

Genesis 3:16 says, "And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." When sin entered the world, spiritual and physical death entered too. "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).

Fifth, death is often unexpected. The lovers do not look like they had anticipated death - it has taken them by surprise. In Jesus' parable about the rich man who boasted about the future, God said, "Fool! This night your soul is required of you" (Luke 12:20).

You may be thinking, "I am young and physically fit. Death is not knocking on my door." Take another look at the woodcut. Both of the lovers are young and full of vitality. The soldier is muscular. But death is no respecter of age, for some die young and some die old.

Nor will physical beauty keep death away. The woman being grabbed by death is in the prime of her physical beauty. But beauty is fleeting. Once death arrives, will it make any difference that you are now considered beautiful or handsome?

Nor will money keep death away. Listening to Solomon, one of the world's wealthiest men who ever lived, there is "a time to be born, and a time to die" (Ecclesiastes 3:2). Money and riches will not prevent the advance of death, nor does it prepare one for the world to come.

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