The nature of Death in “The Seventh Seal”: Symbolism and Philosophies

Symbolism and Philosophies in The Seventh Seal-

What do we tell the god of death? “My flesh is afraid, but I am not”, replies Antonius, a former crusader. Death approaches him nevertheless, only to be delayed by a chess game whose outcome is inevitable. We embark on an endeavor to understand the symbolism and philosophies in The Seventh Seal. Through imagery, dialogue, and tone Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” creates a familiarity with death and an unfamiliarity with religion. Taking inspiration from beliefs and paintings of the late middle ages where the black plague brought blight to Europe killing most of its people.

Painting and Frames

Bergman creates a tale that is at times dark and humorous and on the other hand ominous and replete with innocence. There is a very deep mesh of philosophy in the movie, revealed sometimes by dialogue, sometimes by scenes inspired directly from late medieval paintings, and overall by the atmosphere.

The nature of Death in “The Seventh Seal”: Symbolism and Philosophies

The iconic scene of the disillusioned knight Antonius and Death playing chess. It can be found in the monumental 1480 painting by Albertus Pictor.

Death Playing Chess by Albertus Pictor
(Symbolism and philosophies in The Seventh Seal)
Death Playing Chess by Albertus Pictor

There is one other scene and one of the other most iconic scenes, the ending scene where all the companions are seen dancing with death. This strikes a very close resemblance between itself and The Dance Macabre. It is a series of paintings from the late medieval iconography where normal human beings are seen dancing with various forms both dead and alive. It establishes the power of death overall.

Le Danse Macabre by Anonymous
Le Danse Macabre by Anonymous
The dance with Death at the end of The Seventh Seal. (Symbolism and philosophies in The Seventh Seal)
The dance with Death at the end of The Seventh Seal

Theistic beliefs in The Seventh Seal

And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

Revelations 8:1-6

Keeping aside the obvious pictographic symbolism, “The Seventh Seal” is a deeply allegorical piece of cinema that is widely considered as Bergman’s best work. The name “Seventh Seal” is from the book of revelations. The seals refer to the seven symbolic seals of the book John Patmos saw in his apocalyptic vision. The times depicted in Bergman’s movie coincide with that symbolic end of the world, creating much hysteria among people. Religious fallacies were now out in the open because much like now during a plague the silence of God was deafening. (Symbolism and philosophies in The Seventh Seal)

Theistic belief is seen in open juxtaposition with atheistic existentialism. The crusades had a huge negative impact on the returning Knight Antonius Bloch and his squire Jons. They are both in disillusionment with God though not equally. Antonius searches now for the true meaning of God and questions his intentions, while Jons has a thorough belief that humans reside in an absolute evil reality where there is no God or Devil. The scene at the church reveals Antonius’ fears as he confesses to Death who he seemingly mistakes for a priest.

“Why must God hide in vague promises and invisible miracles? … What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me?….. Why does he go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear him out of my heart, but he remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge.” 

Antonius to Death in The Seventh Seal

… and Atheism

Antonius seeks literal religious knowledge and is not satisfied now with simply tales of riddles and parables like “God works in mysterious ways.” He wanted to not only feel but see the hand of God. Jons on the other hand had completely abandoned all worship and religious sentiment. He is further ingrained when he finds the clergyman who sent them to the holy land – Raval, looting dead bodies and trying to violate women. Subsequently, he threatens Raval with a knife as he holds him responsible for their hardships in the crusades. Raval replies meekly that he had sent them in “good faith”. Or when he was still a man of faith before being disillusioned.

Jons and Raval have both come to the same conclusion despite being very different men. In one of the most terrifying instances of medieval superstition, a witch-burning, Jon reminds his master harshly that the dying woman could now at the minute of death see the reality of the non-existence of God or Satan. Antonius had stated earlier that life without God is senseless horror. That horror descended then on the accused witch. The procession of flagellants, mutilating themselves, carrying heavy burdens, and wailing like beasts inspired awe and disgust equally among onlookers. (Symbolism and philosophies in The Seventh Seal)

This reveals the extremes of religion that reveal themselves much like in modern times. It is hard to even believe that absurdities of the past are now mainstream beliefs. Antonius claimed that we humans carve an idol of our fears and call it God. This refers to the beginning of religion in primitive cultures. However, in the light of flagellants and witch burnings, have we truly advanced beyond that belief? Of course, the entire film is a critique of Christianity and it tells of religious biases, hypocrisies, and absurdities of institutionalized religion.

Biblical Annotations in Bergman’s Best

Christianity had taken hold of the minds of the common populace at the time, resulting in many things which did not coincide with the spiritual belief but more with superstition. As the plague approaches in the Inn, the people begin to mix folk superstition with Christian beliefs.

This results in very strange conversations having grotesque biblical imagery. The entire movie quotes the Bible many times from beginning to end. All the verses relate to the end of the world. But as we know, the world did not end after the black plague, it only changed. Is this a new world? Perhaps not literally. Perhaps not for everyone. Religion made people weary of a doomsday that would never come as time is continuous for every human being till Death. Death is the only reality. Antonius knows he cannot escape Death. Yet he delays the inevitable just for one sign of divinity, to perform one good deed.

We can say delaying Death the third time and letting his companion escape might have been that good deed. What else can be a greater deed than serving fellow man? The Scriptures contain the same. But God did not show his hand, only Death did.

Antonious perhaps accepted that God has forsaken him and decided to the only act of “good faith” he could. Maybe he did not need to. Maybe, he performed the deed because of his simple humanity. I believe Bergman says that in the face of Death, we forsake religious ideals and become purely human. At every turn, he demonstrates the fallacy of beliefs and the virtue of humanism. Characters who previously belonged to the clergy like Raval, have now become common opportunistic scoundrels. It shattered their beliefs. They ran away from the right path because religion was the only thing keeping them decent. Is there any use in a religion then? Is there any use in belief? Can there be true belief and virtue? Bergman directs all these questions to the viewers. Was it a belief in God? Perhaps it was more the fear of God.

Moral Absolutism in The Seventh Seal

It is very interesting to note, that except for the witch whose burning was at the hands of humans themselves, no one dies who was relatively innocent in terms of deeds. Jos, Mia, and their child were a symbolic trio of innocence and the only ones who made it out alive among the main characters of the movie. The first death we see is that of the actor Jonas, who committed adultery quite frequently. However, his death is tragic and comic at the same time. We witness Raval, dying from the plague. Previously, when confronted with Jons’ knife, he said that he had sent the crusaders out in “good faith”. Raval was a religious hypocrite and vile man who found pleasure in torturing innocents like Jof. The Blacksmith Plog was an alcoholic and his wife was adulterous.

Antonius and Jons committed war crimes in the holy lands. Jons self confesses that he raped the woman he rescues from being violated by Raval. No one dies who did not commit at least one un-virtuous act. Death comes for all but not with equal ferocity and irony. Perhaps that is the lesson here. Even the virtuous die but their flame is not snuffed out untimely. A life with virtue may be possible without religion. This forms a crucial aspect of Symbolism and philosophies in The Seventh Seal.

A hardcore conservative may not see god, unlike a common man. Bergman truly believed through too much controversy that simpler people were greater vessels of innocence. There is also subtle class conflict in the movie. Since Jof was a performer, they held him responsible for Jonas’ offense. Bergman shows the low status of actors and performers in the minds of general people at the time. He also holds them to the pinnacle of innocence and virtue as they had only what the land provided them. The Church had not chained them, nor rumors and malicious murmurs.

Summing up the Symbolism and philosophies in The Seventh Seal

In our quest to find the Symbolism and philosophies in The Seventh Seal we conclude that the movie is a true masterwork of allegory, philosophy, and artistry. It expresses these conflicts of ideals in a very simplistic way and uses daily life during dark times to amplify these conflicts. Every frame is stark, against an almost supernatural background. The musical score is heavy with chants and choirs, evoking biblical awe. Perhaps what we can take away most from the film is that we can become familiar with Death yet unfamiliar with God.

Further Reading:

Boidurjya Ganguly

An arts student living on movies, music and games. 50% caffeine and 100% tired.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Avishek Roy

    The Seventh Seal is a fine film, full of humor and verve. I do think the film is just a bit overhyped, especially compared with other Bergman films, but that does not take away from the fact that the Seventh Seal is still a highly enjoyable film. One can feel a love for movie-making throughout the film; it is really more about life than about death.

    Well Penned Boidurjya!

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