Romantic Circles Gallery
The Christian’s Defence against the Fears of Death
The image shows a man lying on a bed, his hands folded in a gesture of prayer. He faces the upper left corner of the picture, where two angels descend towards him on a stream of light. In front of the bed, a younger man is kneeling, tipping his left hand on his left shoulder, as if he was crossing himself. He holds a goblet or chalice in his right hand, and a book lies open before him. In front of the bed, a nightstand with a closed book is depicted. Moreover, one sees a large pitcher and an aid for mounting the bed. A curtain frames the back of the bed. On the bottom of the picture, two lines are engraved in capital letters, ‘Vital spark of heavenly flame/ Quit o quit this mortal frame’.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Literature for Christians
1816. CK D 81 E
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Marks DescriptionOn the bottom of the picture, two lines are engraved in capital letters, ‘Vital spark of heavenly flame/ Quit o quit this mortal frame’.
Edition and StateUnknown
Printing ContextFrontispiece for Charles, Drelincourt, The Christian’s Defence against the fears of death with seasonable directions how to prepare ourselves to die well, printed by Thomas Kelly, Paternoster row, London, 1816.
Associated EventsAccording to the preface, this book was often handed to those mourning at funerals.
Associated PlacesThe Christian's Defences against the fears of death was published and translated into several European languages. The publisher of the 1816 edition states in the preface that, when editing his version, he relied heavily on a comparison of the original French version to the German translation. He claims to have added explanations, and to have strayed from literal translation in order to render the meaning of the text in a way that would be best understood by his own audience.
Associated TextsThe book first appeared in France under the title of Consolations de l'âme fidèle contre les frayeurs de la mort in 1651. The majority of publishers translated the title as The Christian’s Defence against the fears of death; some British editions, however, translated the title more literally as The Christian’s Consolations against the fears of death.
SubjectThis frontispiece functions as a visual summary of the title of the book. By depicting the moment of death in a positive way—the welcoming light, the calm companion (perhaps delivering some sort of last rites), the presence of the angels, etc.—the image not only supports and enhances the meaning of the title, but also encourages the spectator to buy the volume.
ThemeDepiction of hour of death including many religious symbols: the action of crossing oneself, the book which is probably a bible, the goblet which may be a chalice, angels, etc.
SignificanceThis frontispiece seems to claim and reveal a knowledge the "unknown" to its audience. In the moment of death, angels appear and shed light on the dying person. This image was probably intended to show how the fear of death can be managed by means of a consolatory image. Together with the title, this depiction serves as a preview of what the book is about. It should ease people’s fear of dying, and also help the ones left behind with their mourning. It is interesting that the book was reprinted many times during the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. (Compare with the Eighteenth Century Online Collection, which holds nineteen scanned copies of the eighteenth-century version only.) This book suggests an additional perspective—differing from and perhaps influencing the fiction of the period—of death in the Romantic era.
Since it was published as a number-publication by Thomas Kelly, it can be assumed that the The Christian's Defence against the fears of death was widely distributed among an eighteenth and especially a nineteenth century readership. Altick points out how important illustrations were to number-publications: "The appeal of many number-publications resided as much in their illustrations as in their literary content—at least in the beginning.’ (Altick, The Common Reader, p. 265) The illustrations mainly functioned as advertisements for the books in which they appeared. The frontispiece, shown in this gallery, serves as an elaborate example of such an illustration. It depicts the moment of death in a detail-oriented and complex drawing. Therefore, it certainly can be argued that one of its main purposes was to interest the potential reader in either reading or buying the book.
Even though the contemporary readership came to be disappointed that the illustrations in number-publications were few—and though this, consequently, detracted from the marketing strength of these illustrations—it is important to keep the advertising role of these illustrations in mind. Another small detail in Altick’s book appears in the form of a short quote from John Kitto (1804-1854), a famous Bible scholar, who mentions Drelincourt’s work in the same breath with popular and famous works that fascinated him as an adolescent: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Arabian Nights, Drelincourt on Death, etc. (Altick, The Common Reader, p. 265). However, the book seems to never having been interesting to a wider scholarly audience; Drelincourt was rarely mentioned in encyclopedias of the nineteenth century, and his work disappears almost entirely in the twentieth century.
FunctionThe frontispiece depicts the omnipresent moment of death. By depicting this moment in a positive and fearless way, the illustration strengthens the meaning of the book's title. Therefore, the depiction reassures the spectator, the potential buyer and reader of the book, that death will be a positive experience, even for him/her.
BibliographyAltick, D. Richard. The English Common Reader, a Social History of Mass Reading Public 1800-1900. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Breitenbach, Edgar. ‘The Bibliography of Illustrated Books: Notes with two examples from English book illustrations of the 18th century’, pp. 297-314, in Katz, Bill, ed. A History of Book Illustrations, 29 Points of View. Metuchen, N.J. and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1994.
The Encyclopedia Americana: a library of universal knowledge, published by Encyclopedia Americana Corp., 1918: http://books.google.com/books?id=A2cMAAAAYAAJ&hl=de
Whelan, Ruth. “Drelincourt, Peter (1644–1722).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed. Ed. Lawrence Goldman. Jan. 2008. 20 Mar. 2009 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8045