Sunday, December 14, 2014

Symbolism: The Seventh Seal

"Who will take care of that child? Is it the angels or God or Satan or just emptiness?" Jöns

During the mid-fourteenth century, knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) have finished their crusade in the Holy Land and return to their homeland of Sweden to find it devastated by the bubonic plague. Block challenges Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess, hoping to buy some time before he himself is taken. The man desires knowledge of the afterlife (a wee bit like good ol' Doc Faustus), believing that his life has been pointless and that God is, if not uncaring, then unfairly silent. As they journey to Block's castle, the duo run into a troupe of performers, a procession of flagellants, and masses of terrified of villagers—some of whom join Block's entourage as he makes his way home and tries to escape the reach of the black death and an impending apocalypse.

This 1957 film by Ingmar Bergman (based on his own play entitled Wood Painting), is widely known for being philosophical and contains such themes as the silence of a 'Divine Being', the indifference of death, the meaning of human existence, et cetera. Because of its use of motifs, I thought it pertinent to do a post on symbolism present in The Seventh Seal. If you are unaware, a symbol is a thing that stands for something else—especially a material object that represents something abstract.

Not Rated. I would say at least PG for portrayals of death and implications of rape.
Amazing poster by artist Jim Perez, taken from here.

The number seven: The title of the film refers to a passage from the Book of Revelation in Christian eschatology. It is used both at the beginning and near the end of the story, each time emphasizing the number seven. That seems to be a popular digit in the Bible (used no less than seven hundred thirty-five times throughout—fifty-four in Revelations alone). In the context of the film, it is introduced thusly:

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

According to, "seven is the number of completeness and perfection (both physical and spiritual). It derives much of its meaning from being tied directly to God’s creation of all things." I found this interesting, as the film's focus seems to be more on destruction. A genius parallel made by Bergman? Both Block and Jöns speak of mirroring themselves, and creation v. destruction is a perfect duality reflected in all aspects of life. Anyhow, the 'breaking' of the seven seals is meant to bring on the apocalypse, and the only one deemed worthy of opening the book/scroll that is held shut by the seals is a "Lamb having seven horns and seven eyes." To the characters in this story—and to those who lived during that time in history—surely the arrival of such a plague would have made it seem as though the end was nigh and punishment from their God was imminent.

Crows: This symbol stretches well outside the confines of the film and into both folk tradition and pop culture. Most obviously, perhaps, crows represent death as they are scavengers that feed off of the freshly fallen. Their black colour paints them as harbingers of evil and allies of the occult. Throughout history, people have looked upon crows as masqued holders of both great secrets and memories of ancient ways. The very first shot in The Seventh Seal is of a cloudy sky, a crow streaking across the heavens.

The sea: Block and Jöns arrive in their native land on a beach. This is also where the former first encounters the personification of Death and where the travelling acrobats take refuge at the end of the film. The ocean symbolizes travela journey—as well as earth's primality. As I recently learned in an Asian studies/humanities course, water is also a form of purification...though I am not sure if the same understanding is held in Western European countries where, in the middle ages, many pious individuals refused to bathe as they believed it to invite sinfulness andironicallydisease. At any rate, Block washes his face with sea water and prays next to the waves, so he must have felt something divine at such a locale. (For those interested, these scenes were shot at Hovs Hallar in north-western Scania.)

One of the flagellants grasping a human skull. Kudos to the props dept...I've seen worse.

Black & White: Colours should also be taken into consideration when analyzing symbols. These two are especially important not only because The Seventh Seal is filmed sans colour so as to better highlight the striking contrast, but also because of the game of chess between Block and Death. The board and the pieces are clearly defined, illustrating the difference between what some perceive as good v. evil. When first choosing their sides Block remarks, "You have black," to which Death responds, "It's most appropriate, isn't it?" It is also worth noting that whilst Death is clad in a pure black cloak his visage is stark white like a skull. I choose to interpret this particular symbolism as follows: we all die, our flesh fading to cartilage, our consciousness turning to nothingness. Deep, eh?

Travel: Life is transitory. The characters in this film move from one place to the next only to reach their final destination in death.

Religion: 'Protection' from death. Priests act as fearmongers, going so far as to commission a painting of the dance of death to "remind people they will die," and hiring the troupe of performers to put on a play during an All Saints Festival in Elsinore that will drive more people to repent for their sins. Even Block makes a confession to someone whom he thinks is a holy man, only later finding out that it is Death in disguise. The reaper infiltrates all aspects of life—religion is naught but a construct to fend off our innate fears.

Omens of the Last Day: Medieval villagers tend to be a little superstitious. To be fair, I would be too if "a woman gave birth to a calf" or if people had "cleaned themselves by fire and died." That's some dark juju. One of my favourite aspects of learning history has to do with understanding the mentality of a society, something which is often tied to belief systems and the intersection of faith with daily life. While this film is more allegorical rather than historically accurate (esp. given that the last Swedish Crusade took place in the late 1200s and the plague didn't hit until half a century later, or that large scale witch hunts didn't begin until the 1400s), each character's reaction to his or her circumstance was believable enough to be appreciated.

Names: "Antonius" is Swedish in origin and means "priceless," much like life, as he discovers. Mia (Bibi Andersson), the female travelling performer whom Block becomes somewhat protective of, also goes by the name of Mary (as in the Virgin mother). To get back into colour symbolism for a moment, Mia wears white: something that is internationally recognized as purity. Her husband, Jof (Nils Poppe), is sometimes referred to as "Joseph." Biblical references abound. Spoiler: They and their infant son Mikael (AKA "Gift from God") are the only ones to survive. [Oh, by the way, that seven-horned, seven-eyed lamb from earlier? "Rachel" is Hebrew for "ewe." Just sayin'. o_o]

"I am unknowing." —Death

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