The Dance of Death (French: Danse Macabre), is an artistic genre of allegory of the Late Middle Ages on the universality of death: no matter one’s station in life, the Dance Macabre unites all. The danse macabre is a popular artistic motif both present in European folklore and elaborated in the late Middle Ages. It is an element, the most complete, of the macabre art of the Middle Ages, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century.
The deathly horrors of the 14th century such as recurring famines, the Hundred Years’ War in France, and, most of all, the Black Death, were culturally assimilated throughout Europe. The omnipresent possibility of sudden and painful death increased the religious desire for penance, but it also evoked a hysterical desire for amusement while still possible; a last dance as cold comfort. The danse macabre combines both desires: in many ways similar to the mediaeval mystery plays, the dance-with-death allegory was originally a didactic dialogue poem to remind people of the inevitability of death and to advise them strongly to be prepared at all times for death.
Throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, this theme was painted on the walls of churches, in the cemeteries of northern Europe, on the outer walls of cloisters, mass graves, ossuaries. Above or below the illustration are painted verses by which death is addressed to the victim, often in a sarcastic and cynical tone. It is disseminated throughout Europe by poetic texts peddled by street theater groups.
The Danse Macabre consists of the dead or a personification of death summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child, and laborer. They were produced as mementos mori, to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain were the glories of earthly life.
This form of expression is the result of an awareness and reflection on life and death, in a period when it has become more present and more traumatic. Wars – especially the Hundred Years’ War – the famines and the plague, which often represent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, decimated the populations.
The first Danse Macabre seems to be performed in Paris at the Charnier des Saint-Innocents in 1424. It feeds on the anxieties of times of crisis by responding with the force of the imagination. By this saraband, which mixes dead and alive, the Danse Macabre stresses the vanity of social distinctions, of which fate mocked, mowing down the pope as the poor priest, the emperor as the lansquenet. It is a moral lesson addressed to the living to reflect on our condition: it consoles the poor and teaches the greatest that no one is above the law. Its composition is hierarchical: it first involves the “great” (pope, emperor, king, cardinal or patriarch) and then descends the social ladder by bringing in the “little ones” (plowman, child, cordelier, hermit ). The living are thus characters representing the different social strata and the dead are skeletal, dance, make antics, make fun of and drag the living to death, by splitting their attributes (crown, sword, musical instruments)
In the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries further death dances u. a. in Chur (archiepiscopal palace modeled on Holbein’s compositions), in Füssen (Füssener Totentanz), in Konstanz, in Kuks (Bohemia, dance of death as a wall fresco in the hospital, 18th c.), in Lucerne (Totentanzgemälde in the former Jesuit College and on the Spreuerbrücke), in Freiburg im Üechtland, in Bleibach (Black Forest) and in Erfurt. The Totentanzkapelle in Straubing, built in 1486, has an extensive cycle of frescoes, which was created by the Straubing rococo artist Felix Hölzl in 1763. The woodcutting and engraving arts also took up the subject, as well as the poetry, z. B. Bechstein (“Der Totentanz”, Leipzig 1831).
In the second half of the 19th century, too, death dances were drawn again, notably Alfred Rethel and Wilhelm von Kaulbach. Presumably from the 16th century, the regionally different idiom “looks like death in the Basel / Lübeck / Dresden Dance of Death” has found its way into the language that describes pale, unhealthy-looking people.
In the twentieth century, the two world wars led numerous artists to resume motifs from the Dance of the Dead, or to name their own works accordingly.
The earliest recorded visual example is from the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery (1424–25). There were also painted schemes in Basel (the earliest dating from c.1440); a series of paintings on canvas by Bernt Notke, in Lübeck (1463); the initial fragment of the original Bernt Notke painting (accomplished at the end of the 15th century) in the St Nicholas’ Church, Tallinn, Estonia; the painting at the back wall of the chapel of Sv. Marija na Škrilinama in the Istrian town of Beram (1471), painted by Vincent of Kastav; the painting in the Holy Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Istria by John of Kastav (1490). There was also a Dance of Death painted in the 1540s on the walls of the cloister of St Paul’s Cathedral, London with texts by John Lydgate, which was destroyed in 1549.
Frescoes and murals dealing with death had a long tradition and were widespread, e.g. the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead: on a ride or hunt, three young gentlemen meet three cadavers (sometimes described as their ancestors) who warn them, Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis (What we were, you are; what we are, you will be). Numerous mural versions of that legend from the 13th century onwards have survived (for instance, in the Hospital Church of Wismar or the residential Longthorpe Tower outside Peterborough). Since they showed pictorial sequences of men and corpses covered with shrouds, those paintings are sometimes regarded as cultural precursors of the new genre.
A danse macabre painting may show a round dance headed by Death or a chain of alternating dead and live dancers. From the highest ranks of the mediaeval hierarchy (usually pope and emperor) descending to its lowest (beggar, peasant, and child), each mortal’s hand is taken by a skeleton or an extremely decayed body. The famous Totentanz by Bernt Notke in St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck (destroyed during the Allied bombing of Lübeck in World War II) presented the dead dancers as very lively and agile, making the impression that they were actually dancing, whereas their living dancing partners looked clumsy and passive. The apparent class distinction in almost all of these paintings is completely neutralized by Death as the ultimate equalizer, so that a sociocritical element is subtly inherent to the whole genre. The Totentanz of Metnitz, for example, shows how a pope crowned with his mitre is being led into Hell by the dancing Death.
Short verse dialogues between Death and each of its victims, which could have been performed as plays, can be found in the direct aftermath of the Black Death in Germany and in Spain (where it was known as the Totentanz and la Danza de la Muerte, respectively). The French term danse macabre may derive from the Latin Chorea Machabæorum, literally “dance of the Maccabees.” In 2 Maccabees, a deuterocanonical book of the Bible, the grim martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons is described and was a well-known mediaeval subject. It is possible that the Maccabean Martyrs were commemorated in some early French plays or that people just associated the book’s vivid descriptions of the martyrdom with the interaction between Death and its prey.
An alternative explanation is that the term entered France via Spain, the Arabic: مقابر, maqabir (cemetery) being the root of the word. Both the dialogues and the evolving paintings were ostensive penitential lessons that even illiterate people (who were the overwhelming majority) could understand.
The famous designs by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) for his Dance of Death series were drawn in 1526 while he was in Basel. They were cut in wood by the accomplished Formschneider (block cutter) Hans Lützelburger. William Ivins (quoting W.J. Linton) writes of Lützelburger’s work: “‘Nothing indeed, by knife or by graver, is of higher quality than this man’s doing,’ for by common acclaim the originals are technically the most marvelous woodcuts ever made.” These woodcuts soon appeared in proofs with titles in German.
The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein(1523–26) refashions the late-medieval allegory of the danse macabre as a reformist satire, and one can see the beginnings of a gradual shift from traditional to reformed religion. That shift had many permutations however, and in a thoroughly detailed study Natalie Zemon Davis has shown that the contemporary reception and afterlife of Holbein’s designs lent themselves to neither purely Catholic or Protestant doctrine, but could be outfitted with different surrounding prefaces and sermons as printers and writers of different political and religious leanings took them up.
Holbein’s series shows the figure of “Death” in many disguises, confronting individuals from all walks of life. None escape Death’s skeletal clutches, not even the pious.
The dance of death was also widely used as a musical subject. Both explicitly as Totentanz designated works as well as numerous settings on the theme “Death and the girl” rank themselves thematically.
Hans Holbein shifts the representation of the Danse macabre from a tragi-comic farandole with a symbolic meaning to the idea of an individual and daily struggle with Death.
With Hans Holbein the Younger, Danse Macabre adopts a brand new artistic form. This one shows the brutal irruption of Death in work and the joy of living. This representation takes precedence over the idea that death spares no social class.
His works (most often engravings) appeared as early as 1530 and were widely distributed as books from 1538 onwards.
One of the most frequently republished equestrian books of the eighteenth century, The New and Entertaining Story of the Bad Man, portrays a character who escapes the mower and becomes immortal.
Charles Baudelaire and Cazalis wrote on the dance of death, Liszt and Saint-Saëns set it to music.
Death attacks all sexes, ages and backgrounds. The murals of Dance Macabre, where we can see different characters dancing with skeletons, represent in fact the equality before the death of the various social states. By making the popes, the emperors, the cardinals, the kings but also the plowman, the cordeliers, the children and the hermits with the skeletons dance, we are shown that death makes no distinction between the social belonging of the future dead. and that everyone is likely to be hit by it. The skeletons dance and mock all the characters to lead them to death. Thus, from the emperor to the hermit, everyone will know the same fate. It is the abolition of social boundaries: there is no privileged caste to death or hierarchy. Men and women are equal before death:
Also, this equality is visible in the compositions of the first Dances. The dead – represented by skeletons – bring the different characters to death but do not dominate them. The dead and the living dance together. These deaths are not terrifying and threatening: they do not attack the living, they only train them in their dance. The dead and the living are here again equal. But, contemporary dances question this equality between the dead and the living part of the personification of death. Gradually, we will individualize death by attributing a character-like the mower for example – which will induce a hierarchy between the dead and the living14. Once represented by a character, death dominates the living. We move from a representation of the dead bringing the living by the hand to a representation of a character armed with a scythe that directly kills the living. Death is therefore the cynical judge of the vices of the living.