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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Turning the World Right Side Up

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

Death chooses sides for a high-stakes chess game with the crusader in The Seventh Seal.


“The village of my birth is the center of my universe,” says a Portuguese friend, who has lived hundreds of miles away from it for years at a time and does not live there now.

I have no such fixed place. My center is a moving one that constantly shifts from my family’s homeland to the city of my birth to the many places that I have called home.

However, customarily, during this week between Christmas and the New Year, I time-shift, recalling past festivities, reveling in the present one and imagining future ones. Not this year. This year, I am rooted in the here and now for fear of losing it by taking my final exit and disappearing into the haze of the past.

In the medieval world turned upside down by bubonic plague and fanaticism of The Seventh Seal, writer and director Ingmar Bergman explored his loss of faith and the consequential void. The film travels with a weary knight returning from the Crusades and his cynical squire, a horse-drawn caravan of actors, a blacksmith and his wife, and others we meet along the way, including black-cloaked Death, of course.

In the 14th century in response to war, famine and plague, flagellants in Europe inflicted pain on their bodies in a public penitential ritual. In the film, three dozen sing a dirge as they march to the beat of a drum. The procession is led by two who each swing a thurible of smoky incense that drifts through the scene. Among the penitents, several whip themselves or those in front of them. One man shoulders a wooden cross that has weighed down his body so that his chest parallels the ground. A woman marches on her knees with her arms outstretched, a bare-chested man walks with rough-hewn crutches, and another hobbles under the weight of another cross.

The surviving actors, husband and wife, and their baby escape the silence of Death by taking shelter for the night inside their wagon. The next morning, they lead their horses into the future as the hope for tomorrow.

Earlier, a woman, condemned as a witch who manifested the devil’s sickness and death, was burned at the stake.

Three years before the 1956 release of The Seventh Seal, Arthur Miller staged his play, The Crucible, in which witch-hunting was a metaphor for Communist-baiting in the United States and a universal message that public hysteria destroys lives. Both the film and the play were parables of the fears of the 1950s.

Seventy years ago.

What else is making a comeback?

The paisley pattern, which originated in 16th-century Persia, is back in the shops. Paisley was named for the Scottish town, where it was manufactured in the 19th century. My 18-year-old son bought two shirts with the teardrop-shaped motif, which was new to him. I remember paisley from the Sixties when young people wore it. I told my son that if you live long enough, styles come back.

Fashion, politics and life occur in cycles. Knowing this gives us grace because we realize that this pandemic, too, shall pass.

In modern times, there were three cholera pandemics in the 19th century; the third bubonic plague pandemic in the 19th century considered active until 1960, and the 1918 flu pandemic. In Portugal, where I live, smallpox, typhoid fever and tuberculosis were endemic until the 20th century, according to The Portuguese cholera morbus epidemic of 1853-56 as seen by the press, in The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science (August 17, 2011).

“It was only when proper sanitation measures were implemented and an effective health plan was put into place, including the use of vaccines and the recently discovered penicillin, that epidemics and huge mortality rates turned into things of the past,” says The Royal Society article.

“Things of the past. . . .”

My customary Christmas week time-shifting will return in a future year, God willing.

Happy New Year. There are better days ahead.

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