The Seventh Seal: Modern Medievalism in Ingmar Bergman's Classic Film

This article asks whether The Seventh Seal can be seen as an allegory. The medieval aspects of The Seventh Seal are pervasive – from the historical accuracy of its mise en scène, to its origins in medieval church murals and Bergman’s morality

‘The Seventh Seal is an allegory with a theme that is quite simple: man, his eternal search for God, with Death as his only certainty.’ (Ingmar Bergman). 

This article asks whether The Seventh Seal can be seen as an allegory.  The medieval aspects of The Seventh Seal are pervasive – from the historical accuracy of its mise en scène, to its origins in medieval church murals and Bergman’s morality play Wood Painting.  It is therefore tempting to conclude that the film is descended from the medieval allegories it closely resembles. This impression is compounded by the film’s depiction of an allegorical morality play whose characters (Death and the Soul of Man) correspond remarkably with those of the film.  Despite visual and structural similarities, however, The Seventh Seal differs both thematically and ideologically from this dramatic mode, so much so that it would be a denigration of the film to view it solely in this narrow medieval sense. Instead it demonstrates, as Bergman’s statement above indicates, a profoundly modern sensibility.

The first condition of allegory that must be addressed is the way in which characters function. John Watkins has written, ‘In every extant morality and most surviving interludes, [specific allegorical forms] personified vices and virtues contend over passive protagonists incapable of understanding or ameliorating their predicaments.’1 Though largely applicable to The Seventh Seal, this paradigm is not followed entirely. Only one overt personification is depicted (Death) and is neither a virtue nor a vice. As a result there is no group of allegorical figures to contend over the protagonists. Instead the protagonists themselves are embodiments of abstract concepts (such as metaphysical uncertainty in the case of the knight, atheism/worldliness in that of Jöns etc.)

However, Watkins’s statement implies that allegorical characters are not distinctly individuated or psychologically rounded, and The Seventh Seal does fulfil this fundamental condition. Its characters are manifestations of ‘psychic traits, alive without very much complexity.’2 On the part of the actors this requires the suppression of all other components of their psyche to leave in evidence only this most relevant trait, which is then expressed via their actions. Consequently, it would be an oversimplification to conclude that the protagonists are passive like those of medieval allegory even if their final encounter with Death reduces them to this state. They are active participants in the drama because they are defined through their actions, rather than their affiliation with certain vices or virtues.

Specifically, their actions are organised towards revealing an attitude to death. Each main character encounters a manifestation of death in three successive scenes beginning with the knight’s first meeting. This proximity, at a stage when characters are still being introduced, implies that they are best defined by the way in which death appears to them. Thus, the knight converses with a ‘living’ abstraction whom he can ply with questions. This illustrates the knight’s intellectuality, his capacity for abstract thought and his belief that death should be a transition and a divulgence of knowledge.

The earth-bound, cynical atheist Jöns discovers the decaying corpse of a plague-victim, eloquently expressing the harsh reality of death, Jöns’ awareness of it and his determination to live without illusions. For him death represents only the cessation of physical existence and he is therefore reluctant to spend his life, like the knight, in what he regards as futile contemplation. To the innocent Jof and Mia death appears as nothing more threatening than the empty mask worn by Skat, and while the camera lingers on this image the soundtrack records Jof and Mia’s unconcerned laughter.3

All information given about the characters serves only to reinforce these distinctions. An example is a device which, when later employed in The Silence, divides its characters into representations of mind and body. Discussing the portents he has heard, Jöns relates the apparition of four suns in the sky, whereupon he looks above him as if to count them. It is clear from his expression and abundant perspiration that the heat irritates him – he succumbs to physical conditions - and is more concerned with this aspect of the portent than any symbolic significance it may have. The knight, however, maintains a cool and cerebral calm – barely registering physical phenomena, so deep is he in contemplation.

In other words, each character represents an attitude towards death and an existence in which there is no evidence of God. This confirms part of Bergman’s statement: his characters are ‘cast allegorically into the void of modern disbelief’4 and in negotiating a relationship with death verify his assertion that death is the only certainty.

It should be mentioned that Death is a uniquely modern figure, and never appears in medieval allegory. The gruesome image of the Grim Reaper appears in the medieval church murals that informed Bergman’s series of tableaux, and in those painted by the artist in the film. In these cases, however, it functions less as a personification than as a static image, signifying death, like the word itself. The film’s representation as a communicating figure has a much greater tangibility, and posits death as the ultimate reality. According to Andrew Sarris, ‘nothing could be more modern than [Bergman’s] conception of death as the crucial reality of man’s existence.’5

Perhaps the clearest analogy for this structure can be found by referring to a central aspect of The Seventh Seal’s symbolism – that of the chessboard. Bergman uses his characters very much like chess pieces: they are not conceived with realistically rounded psychologies, but are defined within very specific contours which pre-determine set patterns of action that cannot be deviated from. For example, the knight admits that he will continue asking questions even though no answers are forthcoming. As Birgitta Steene has written, ‘the search has become his raison d’etre.’6 He is reduced to asking questions for their own sake, not in anticipation of knowledge, since he represents humanity’s questioning impulse.

Bergman encourages us to make this analogy with chess pieces through several means. At the beginning of the game the pieces are shown to correspond to the film’s characters. Death chooses the black pieces, which he rightly regards as ‘most appropriate’. The knight commands the white pieces, which parallels his later role as leader of the entourage. This encourages us to see his fellow travellers as chess pieces and himself as dealing in their fates. This is brought to a peak when his act of overturning the pieces at the game’s climax has the direct result that Jof and Mia are allowed to escape Death. Furthermore, his strategy for defeating Death involves the knight (i.e. his own being, his intellect) and the bishop (the faith in God he is trying to establish). After the first stage of the game is concluded there is a subtle effect that illuminates the way characters function within the film. While following the knight, the camera lingers on the chessboard and allows the knight to wander out of shot. This implies that the meta-narrative, the ‘eternal search’ represented by the game is more important than the individual characters through whom it is played out. Therefore, in constructing characterisations Bergman introduces his own brand of symbolism, rather than using the vice-virtue orientated medieval system, but adheres to the ‘ventriloquistic’7 technique employed by his medieval counterparts. This fact highlights the film’s similarity in method with allegory, but hints at a difference in ideology.

Among the areas in which The Seventh Seal differs ideologically is its attitude to the Church. During the ‘Age of Faith’ the institution naturally had a more dominant position within society than it did in the existential climate from which The Seventh Seal emerged. The knight’s incessant questioning, through which Bergman constructs God as an enigma,8 is diametrically opposed to the prevailing blind faith and naïveté of the Middle Ages, which held God as an indisputable reality. Bergman has professed to a belief in God but not in the Church.9 This would no doubt have seemed incomprehensible to a medieval community in which the church was the sole means of negotiating salvation with God. Yet Bergman‘s doubts about the Church’s authority are given substance in his treatment of its few representatives in the film.

The first of these is Raval, the ex-priest. Raval’s moral turpitude and spiritual emptiness are both neatly expressed in his initial act of stealing from the dead – making him guilty, not only of theft but also of sacrilegious behaviour. He follows this act with his attempted rape of the silent girl and persecution of the innocent Jof. As another of Bergman’s chess pieces, then, Raval is ‘active, malicious evidence of the unethical advantage the ministers of the Church took of most men’s naïveté in the Middle Ages.’10

Similarly, the raucous band of flagellants instil a senseless fear in the villagers with their horrific performance, yet offer no means of redemption besides negative courses of action, such as advocating the fatal process of purging by fire, as a villager at the inn attests. The chief flagellant begins a hellfire sermon, which Bergman ironically captures in front of the stage occupied by Jof and Mia. The juxtaposition suggests perhaps a lack of sincerity, an element of performance on the part of the preacher. More importantly though, as Jof and Mia cower in fright behind him, the image contrasts the innocent faith and direct belief in God of Jof and Mia with the preoccupation with dogma so abhorred by Bergman.

His most vitriolic denunciation of organised religion occurs in the Tyan episode, in which a young girl falls victim to the neuroses and superstitions of the medieval church and is burnt at the stake for having ‘carnal intercourse with the Devil’. Bergman exposes this accusation as preposterous by emphasising the ludicrous rituals that revolve around it, such as the foul-smelling potion, intended to scare away the Devil, at which Jöns turns up his nose – both literally and because he is aware of its pointlessness, and the priests’ unexplained motives for breaking Tyan’s hands.

Since medieval allegory was founded on didactic and pedagogical premises11 The Seventh Seal can be at least partially aligned with the mode. It has been argued that Bergman ‘subscribes to the belief that art can justify its existence only by serving a moral intent; it is a vision of art primarily as edification, not as entertainment.’12 Bergman has stated that his method is that of ‘chamber music’ – using several voices to explore certain themes. But in The Seventh Seal, analysis of themes - such as death and God’s silence - is not his only intention. There is also an effort to determine which of these voices represents the most viable response.

The various attitudes are finally brought face to face with Death in the climactic scene at the knight’s castle, and judged to be inadequate: the knight’s life of questioning has been futile because his ultimate ignorance is just as profound as that of Plog and Lisa, who have never considered anything but trivialities.13

Only Jof and Mia are vindicated and survive unscathed. They are aware of death and have a natural instinct to avoid it, but are not preoccupied with contemplation of it. They survive by harbouring certain ‘necessary illusions’14 (religious faith and mutual love), which ‘make life endurable if not justifiable’, allowing them to focus on the future (represented by Mikael) and maintain their irreverent attitude to death. Thus, it is their attitude that Bergman cites as being positive and viable, and his conclusion, lauding one mode of living above all others, parallels the instructive tendency of allegory.

It should be pointed out, however, that this similarity is one of intention, not ideology; the film does not follow the medieval paradigm of a narrative of fall and redemption. Birgitta Steene has written that the medieval protagonist is afflicted by a ‘forgetfulness of God’ rather than crippling doubt, and the narrative concerns God’s attempts to ‘reach and save his straying child,’15 – profoundly different from The Seventh Seal’s metaphysical uncertainty.

Behind this difference in the way characters and narratives operate is the fundamental opposition between the medieval conception of the universe as orderly and coherent, and that of The Seventh Seal in which God is silent, entropy rules and death is the only certainty. This aspect of the film’s ideology descends from Nietzsche and a contemporary change in the ‘structure of feeling’ of society, involving a loss of faith in ‘‘meta-narratives’ (large-scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application.’16 These had been in force since the Enlightenment, and included science, philosophy, and latterly, organised religion. The Twentieth Century, with its experience of death camps, militarism and atomic weapons had altered society’s perception of meta-narratives.

Structural similarities with allegory occur in the film’s symbolism. It is based around a series of allegorical encounters derived from morality plays and medieval church paintings (e.g. Jof’s vision of Mary; Skat seeking refuge in the tree of life which Death is sawing down; the concluding dance of death).

This sequence of events gives an acute sense that an organising consciousness lies behind them. Summarising Bede’s writing on New Testament allegory, John MacQueen wrote: ‘God, as author of the universe wittily arranges that his creation shall operate at two levels, the immediate and the prophetic.’17 This downplays the importance of the authorial voice by implying that allegory is not a constructed work of fiction but a recounting of events that are already allegorical. Similarly, there is an organising consciousness behind The Seventh Seal which ordains that the knight is both a knight and an embodiment of humanity’s questioning, philosophical instinct, but this, of course, derives from Bergman’s authorship. In the presumed absence of God it is appropriate that Bergman should assume the authorial position – it makes God’s silence that much more discernible. It also gives rise to homogeneity between the film’s symbolism and the dual meaning and ‘simultaneity’ of allegory.

Among the multi-layered meanings constructed by the film is its often-cited analogy between the Middle Ages and the contemporary age. The specification that it is set in the 1450s encourages us to equate these eras, as do Bergman’s statements on the subject. The plague-ravaged environment is a fairly evident symbol for the world living under the shadow of the atomic bomb and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Similarly, the knight’s return from the Crusades prefigures the modern soldier’s return from war.18

The theme is perhaps introduced in the first shot where a foreboding black cloud obliterates the sun. This has been interpreted as an allusion to the phenomenon of the mushroom cloud, and the stark silhouette of the sea eagle that appears may be seen as the spectre of death casting its shadow over the world. The violence of the storm from which Jof and Mia shelter in their wagon (nuclear bunker?) suggests the devastating process of nuclear holocaust. Finally, Karin’s reading of ominous prophesies from the scripture – ‘A there fell a great star from Heaven . . . and the name of the star was called Wormwood’, ‘And the third part of the Earth was burnt up’ – resounds with intimations of atomic weapons and their effects. These facts have led many to view the film as an allegory on the atomic age, which is both useful, as it emphasises the film’s modern aspects and the ways in which it differs from medieval allegory, but also problematic because the film’s purpose extends beyond this.

In conclusion, The Seventh Seal can usefully be viewed as an allegory, but only in a specifically modern sense, despite its numerous medieval aspects. The film shares visual and structural similarities with medieval allegory, but these are countered by thematic and ideological differences. Bergman adopted the allegorical framework, but adapted it in order to analyse some very personal and very modern concerns. Among these is the atomic age metaphor, but this is used not to lament the state of the world, but to emphasise the imminence of death for all living things – i.e. to make its status as the ‘only certainty’ all the more apprehensible. For this it is necessary to make the audience acutely aware of this fundamental reality, and tapping into a contemporary source of fear and the awareness of mortality is indeed a uniquely pliable method. Having achieved this he can assert the magnitude of the film’s metaphysical quest and articulate his slender hope that death promises to divulge the secret of existence, thus resolving man’s eternal search for God. 

Please see my article on the great Swedish actress, Bibi Andersson:


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