Art History Mythology

A brief history of ‘The Dance of Death’.

Many amazing works of art have been found painted on the outside walls of cloisters, of family vaults, of ossuaries or inside some churches and even a medieval bridge, depicting the imagery of the ‘Dance of Death’. By all accounts, the Dance of Death first appeared in the cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris around 1424-25. Unfortunately, we are unable to see this mural today because it was destroyed in 1669. The back wall of the arcade, which the mural was painted on, below the charnel house on the south side of the cemetery, was demolished to allow a narrow road behind it to be widened. Interestingly, although the walls have long since been destroyed, the paintings were reproduced by a Parisian printmaker named Guyot (or Guy) Marchant in 1485.

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Danse Macabre, The Chambermaid and the Housekeeper, a reproduction of the Danse Macabre of the Holy innocents Cemetery in Paris by Guyot Marchant, 1485.
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The 13th century Lucerne’s Spreuer Bridge, Switzerland, with its gabled roof contains a series of artworks forming a ‘Dance of Death’ cycle.

Despite the terrible loss of the Danse Macabre of the Holy innocents Cemetery in Paris, we have many other fascinating paintings and portraits of the dance of death still in existence that reflect the mood of artists and their unique representations of death from that period. Here below, Michael Wolgemut’s The Dance of Death (1493), from the Nuremberg Chronicle is of particular interest to me, as is the Renaissance woodblock printings by the German artist Hans Holbein (1497–1543). Holbein created the woodcuts between 1523 and 1525, while based in the Swiss town of Basel. In his series of lively scenes Death encroaches upon the lives of thirty-four people from various levels of European society — from emperor to nobleman to ploughman. 

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The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut from the Nuremberg Chronicle.
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The Dance of Death (The Advocate,The Lady, The Nobleman) woodblocks by Hans Holbein, c.1523 -1525

It’s probably interesting to point out that a dancing mania or dancing plague called choreomania is often attributed to the Danse Macabre. Between the 14th and 17th centuries people literally danced themselves to exhaustion. It was a social phenomenon (we still know little about) which forced authorities to organise dance rituals in some towns and cities. The most famous ritual that we know about occurred in Strasbourg, France in 1518 which saw musicians famously brought in to let people dance until they injured or exhausted themselves.

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“Dance at Molenbeek” by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) depicts pilgrims dancing to the church at Molenbeek.

The cultural impact of the ’Dance of Death’ isn’t exclusively reserved for the outside walls of cloisters or inside churches. Notable examples exist as artwork. It is said that one of the most valuable medieval artworks in Estonia is the Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke. Only a section of the original 30 metre oil painting still exists and is on display in the medieval St. Nicholas’ Church Tallinn, Estonia. While inside the Ritterscher Palace in Lucerne, Switzerland, a stunning collection of Jacob von Wyl’s cycle of the Dance of Death (c. 1610-15) is also a must-see for art enthusiasts with some 23 scenes highlighting various social classes confronted with death.

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A section of the 25-foot-long fragment of the Danse Macabre, featuring Death and the Empress, St. Nicholas’ Church Tallinn, Estonia, 15th century.
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The Dance of Death, featuring The Queen, is one of a series of paintings by Jakob von Wyl’s found in the Ritterscher Palace Lucerne, c.1610-15.

Beginning in the Late Middle Ages, a handful of churches in France and across Europe, began commissioning wall paintings depicting the Danse Macabre. The three best examples are probably the 12th century church of Saint-Germain in the village of La Ferté-Loupière, near Auxerre in Yonne, France, the small church of St. Mary in Beram, Croatia and the Church of the Holy Trinity of Hrastovlje, Slovenia.

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The interior of the Church of Saint-Germain, La Ferté-Loupière, France.

Within the Saint-German Church upon the high walls the incredible Danse Macabre fresco from the late 15th century grabs the attention of locals and pilgrims from around the world. The condition of this magnificent fresco is truly something to behold at 25 metres in length and features 42 characters in total representing the entire social hierarchy of the time in a procession with death. 

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This small section of the ‘Danse Macabre’ fresco of the church of Saint-Germain, La Ferté-Loupière, shows a procession march made up of pairings of the living, who are each escorted by the dead. In total there are 19 pairings.

In Croatia, Vincent de Kastav’s 1474 masterpiece, from the small church of St. Mary in Beram, is also quite breathtaking. Unfortunately time has damaged much of the ‘Dance of Death’ frescoes of St. Mary, where some of the characters are scarcely distinguishable, and the lower section of the fresco is in some parts been destroyed. Still, it is an amazing representation of death, who seems to take pleasure playing his music, while leading his victims on a merry dance of death.

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Above the entrance door in the interior of St. Mary’s sits a section of the “Dance of Death” by painter Vincent de Kastav, 1474.

In neighbouring Slovenia, the rich coloured frescos inside the stone walls of Church of the Holy Trinity date back to 1490. The rare frescoes were only rediscovered in 1949 and carefully restored after being plastered over and whitewashed. It depicts eleven characters from all walks of life being lead by the same number of skeletons moving forward in a procession.

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A section of the Danse Macabre of Hrastovlje, Slovenia, depicting from left to right, the Queen, King and a bishop.

One might ask why the fascination with art and death? Quite simply, it was a way of showing people that “no matter one’s station in life , the Dance of Death unites all.” It was during the Middle Ages in particular that disease and death was on almost everyone’s doorstep. It was a time of horrible epidemics, where mortality was especially low. One of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages was the plague of 1348, where some two-thirds of Europe’s population was wiped out. With this death and disease began to play on people’s mind and the perception of death, as the Grim Reaper that scythes people’s lives, was arguably born during that period?

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The Dance of Death, Anonymous, German, 16th century.

The Dance of Death in most paintings takes the form of a lively farandole, in which death and its victims are usually seen holding hands, winding in and out in a chain. The most common depiction of this fascinating dance of death shows bare Skeletons merrily playing music, while ‘Death’ is almost always left to deal with the sorry sight of his victims begging and crying out for death to be merciful. Interestingly, sometimes his victims will go to any length to cheat death. For instance, in the Beram fresco seen here below, a merchant is strategically pointing to the large amount of money he has in his sack in an attempt to bribe death. His efforts of course are in vain, as ‘Death’ is incorruptible. Death will never bargain to spare an individuals life in exchange for mortal riches. And so with no prejudice of sex, age or care of what standing in life one came from, ‘Death’ is the ultimate adjudicator.

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A merchant is pointing to the large amount of money he has in his sack in an attempt to bribe death. Section of the ‘Dance of Death’ frescoes of St. Mary, Beram, Croatia by Vincent de Kastav, 1474.
Note: This featured article was originally published in 2013. It has been updated and moved to the front pages to further highlight this site’s original content.
Photo credit: The header image is the painting ‘Dancing with Death’ by Hugo Simberg, 1899. All images appear to be in the public domain except the image of the interior of the Church of Saint-Germain, La Ferté-Loupière (with pews) is by Flickr user Patrick. It is used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Dance of Death from the Church of St. Mary in Beram, Croatia is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. 

3 comments on “A brief history of ‘The Dance of Death’.

  1. A well-researched and well-written piece Robert. Such an unusual and historically fascinating cultural ritual!

  2. Definitely worth a re-post, Robert. Very informative and utterly fascinating.

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