The Dance of Death: A warning for our Times

The Danse Macabre , also called the Dance of Death, is an artistic genre of allegory of the late Middle Ages on the universality of death.

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. The effect was both frivolous, and terrifying; beseeching its audience to react emotionally. It was produced as memento mori, to remind people of the fragility of their lives, and how vain were the glories of earthly life.[1] Its origins are postulated from illustrated sermon texts; the earliest recorded visual scheme was a now-lost mural at Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris dating from 1424 to 1425.

Historian Francis Rapp (1926–2020) writes that “Christians were moved by the sight of the Infant Jesus playing on his mother’s knee; their hearts were touched by the Pietà; and patron saints reassured them by their presence. But, all the while, the danse macabre urged them not to forget the end of all earthly things.” This Danse Macabre was enacted at village pageants and at court masques, with people “dressing up as corpses from various strata of society“, and may have been the origin of costumes worn during Allhallowtide.

Since the 16th century, costumes have become a central part of Halloween traditions. Perhaps the most common traditional Halloween costume is that of the ghost. This is likely because … when Halloween customs began to be influenced by Catholicism, the incorporation of the themes of All Hallows’ and All Souls’ Day would have emphasized visitations from the spirit world over the motifs of spirites and fairies. … The baking and allowing them to go door to door to collect them in exchange for praying for the dead (a practice called souling), often carrying lanterns made of hollowed-out turnips. Around the 16th century, the practice of going house to house in disguise (a practice called guising) to ask for food began and was often accompanied by recitation of traditional verses (a practice called mumming). Wearing costumes, another tradition, has many possible explanations, such as it was done to confuse the spirits or souls who visited the earth or who rose from local graveyards to engage in what was called a Danse Macabre, basically a large party among the dead.

Another contributor to the custom of dressing up at Halloween was the old Irish practice of marking All Hallows’ Day with religious pageants that recounted biblical events. These were common during the Middle Ages all across Europe. The featured players dressed as saints and angels, but there were also plenty of roles for demons who had more fun, capering, acting devilish, and playing to the crows. The pageant began inside the church, then moved by procession to the churchyard, where it continued long into the night.

On the other hand the postmodern phenomenon of “antifashion” is also to be found in some Halloween costumes. Black and orange are a ‘must’ with many costumes. Halloween – like the medieval danse macabre – is closely connected with superstitions and it might be a way of dealing with death in a playful way

In her thesis, The Black Death and its Effect on 14th and 15th Century Art Anna Louise Des Ormeaux describes the effect of the Black Death on art, mentioning the Danse Macabre as she does so:

Some plague art contains gruesome imagery that was directly influenced by the mortality of the plague or by the medieval fascination with the macabre and awareness of death that were augmented by the plague. Some plague art documents psychosocial responses to the fear that plague aroused in its victims. Other plague art is of a subject that directly responds to people’s reliance on religion to give them hope.

The cultural impact of mass outbreaks of disease, of pandemics, are not fleeting or temporary. The effect can endure past the initial stages of outbreak, in its deep etching upon the culture and society. This can be seen in the artworks and motifs of Danse Macabre as people attempted to cope with the death surrounding them.

The earliest recorded visual example is the lost mural on the South wall of the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris. It was painted in 1424–25 during the regency of John, Duke of Bedford (1389–1435). It features an emphatic inclusion of a dead crowned king at a time when France did not have a crowned king. The mural may well have had a political subtext.

Charnel house at Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, Paris, with mural of a Danse Macabre (1424–25)

There were also painted schemes in Basel (the earliest dating from c. 1440); a series of paintings on canvas by Bernt Notke (1440–1509) in Lübeck (1463); the initial fragment of the original Bernt Notke painting Danse Macabre (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 (1474), painted by Vincent of Kastav; the painting in the Holy Trinity Church of Hrastovlje, Istria by John of Kastav (1490).

A notable example was painted on the cemetery walls of the Dominican Abbey, in Bern, by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch (1484–1530) in 1516/7. This work of art was destroyed when the wall was torn down in 1660, but a 1649 copy by Albrecht Kauw (1621–1681) is extant. There was also a Dance of Death painted around 1430 and displayed on the walls of Pardon Churchyard at Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London, with texts by John Lydgate (1370–1451) known as the ‘Dance of (St) Poulys’, which was destroyed in 1549.

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 medieval 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 (see memento mori and Ars moriendi).

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).

An abbot and a bailiff, dancing the Dance Macabre, miniature from a 1486 book, printed by Guy Marchant in Paris

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 medieval 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 (pl., “cemeteries”) 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.

Mural paintings

Frescoes and murals dealing with death had a long tradition, and were widespread. For example, 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, more usually, 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 an animated skeleton or cadaver.

Lübecker Totentanz by Bernt Notke (around 1463, destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942)

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 tiara is being led into Hell by Death.

Usually, a short dialogue is attached to each pair of dancers, in which Death is summoning him (or, more rarely, her) to dance and the summoned is moaning about impending death. In the first printed Totentanz textbook (Anon.: Vierzeiliger oberdeutscher Totentanz, Heidelberger Blockbuch, c. 1455/58), Death addresses, for example, the emperor:

Emperor, your sword won’t help you out
Sceptre and crown are worthless here
I’ve taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance

At the lower end of the Totentanz, Death calls, for example, the peasant to dance, who answers:

I had to work very much and very hard
The sweat was running down my skin
I’d like to escape death nonetheless
But here I won’t have any luck

Various examples of Danse Macabre in Slovenia and Croatia below:

The fresco at the back wall of the chapel of Sv. Marija na Škrilinama in the Istrian town of Beram (1474), painted by Vincent of Kastav, Croatia
the famous Macabre in Hrastovlje in the Holy Trinity Church
Johannes de Castua: Detail of the Dance Macabre fresco (1490) in the Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia
  • Hans Holbein’s woodcuts

Renowned for his Dance of Death series, the famous designs by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543) 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 wrote:

‘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 first book edition, containing forty-one woodcuts, was published at Lyons by the Treschsel brothers in 1538. The popularity of the work, and the currency of its message, are underscored by the fact that there were eleven editions before 1562, and over the sixteenth century perhaps as many as a hundred unauthorized editions and imitations. Ten further designs were added in later editions.

The Dance of Death (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 Christianity. That shift had many permutations however, and in a 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. Most importantly, “The pictures and the Bible quotations above them were the main attractions […] Both Catholics and Protestants wished, through the pictures, to turn men’s thoughts to a Christian preparation for death.“.

The 1538 edition which contained Latin quotations from the Bible above Holbein’s designs, and a French quatrain below composed by Gilles Corrozet (1510–1568) actually did not credit Holbein as the artist. It bore the title: Les simulachres & / HISTORIEES FACES / DE LA MORT, AUTANT ELE/gammēt pourtraictes, que artifi/ciellement imaginées. / A Lyon. / Soubz l’escu de COLOIGNE. / M.D. XXXVIII. (“Images and Illustrated facets of Death, as elegantly depicted as they are artfully conceived.”)[These images and workings of death as captured in the phrase “histories faces” of the title “are the particular exemplification of the way death works, the individual scenes in which the lessons of mortality are brought home to people of every station.”

In his preface to the work Jean de Vauzèle, the Prior of Montrosier, addresses Jehanne de Tourzelle, the Abbess of the Convent at St. Peter at Lyons, and names Holbein’s attempts to capture the ever-present, but never directly seen, abstract images of death “simulachres.” He writes: “[…] simulachres les dis ie vrayement, pour ce que simulachre vient de simuler, & faindre ce que n’est point.” (“Simulachres they are most correctly called, for simulachre derives from the verb to simulate and to feign that which is not really there.”) He next employs a trope from the memento mori (remember we all must die) tradition and a metaphor from printing which well captures the undertakings of Death, the artist, and the printed book before us in which these simulachres of death barge in on the living: “Et pourtant qu’on n’a peu trouver chose plus approchante a la similitude de Mort, que la personne morte, on d’icelle effigie simulachres, & faces de Mort, pour en nos pensees imprimer la memoire de Mort plus au vis, que ne pourroient toutes les rhetoriques descriptiones de orateurs.”[17] (“And yet we cannot discover any one thing more near the likeness of Death than the dead themselves, whence come these simulated effigies and images of Death’s affairs, which imprint the memory of Death with more force than all the rhetorical descriptions of the orators ever could.”).

The Plowman from Holbein’s Simolachri, Historie, e Figure de la Morte, 1549

The Pedlar from Holbein’s Simolachri, Historie, e Figure de la Morte (In Lyone Appresso Giovan Frellone, 1549)

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.As Davis writes, “Holbein’s pictures are independent dramas in which Death comes upon his victim in the midst of the latter’s own surroundings and activities.

The Abbess from Holbein’s Simolachri, Historie, e Figure de la Morte, 1549

This is perhaps nowhere more strikingly captured than in the wonderful blocks showing the plowman earning his bread by the sweat of his brow only to have his horses speed him to his end by Death. The Latin from the 1549 Italian edition pictured here reads: “In sudore vultus tui, vesceris pane tuo.” (“Through the sweat of thy brow you shall eat your bread”), quoting Genesis 3.19. The Italian verses below translate: (“Miserable in the sweat of your brow,/ It is necessary that you acquire the bread you need eat,/ But, may it not displease you to come with me,/ If you are desirous of rest.”). Or there is the nice balance in composition Holbein achieves between the heavy-laden traveling salesman insisting that he must still go to market while Death tugs at his sleeve to put down his wares once and for all: “Venite ad me, qui onerati estis.” (“Come to me, all ye who [labor and] are heavy laden”), quoting Matthew 11.28. The Italian here translates: (“Come with me, wretch, who are weighed down,/ Since I am the dame who rules the whole world:/ Come and hear my advice,/ Because I wish to lighten you of this load.”).

For more info about Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death and Social Criticism look here

  • Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death Alphabet

Holbein’s dance of death alphabet was first used in August 1524 (picture to the right). The letters are quite small (2.5 x 2.5 cm), but incredibly detailed. The woodcutter was Hans Lützelburger (= Hans/John from Luxembourg), and we know this because his woodcutter’s mark (picture to the left) appear on some of the sheets that were printed along with the alphabet. Read here

  • Bruegel: The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) and ‘The Triumph of Death’.

In Bruegel’s painting The triumph of death – one of the most terrifying of its time and the centuries since – Death lays waste to the earth, triumphing over everyone, whether king or card-player, soldier, mother and child, or young lovers. In a landscape which is death itself – withered grass, blasted trees, and apocalyptic fires burning – Death leads his armies mounted upon a withered horse, and wielding an immense scythe. All around are scenes of destruction in which there is no escape from a brutal or horrific death. Read more here

There is no escape: death intrudes even at moments of gaiety and peace. At the bottom right of the picture, a group of wealthy people have been startled from their gaming, good food and wine. The backgammon board and playing cards lie scattered, while a masked skeleton empties the wine flasks. Everyone reacts in their different ways: the jester tries to hide under the tablecloth, a richly-garbed man draws his sword, while a pair of lovers at the extreme right continue to make music and gaze into each other’s eyes.

But there is no escape from the scourge of war. Men and women may try to fend off death’s henchmen with sword and spear, but the living are badly outnumbered, their efforts futile. Death is inevitable and unsparing of high or low, a lesson that medieval and Renaissance artists reiterated.  And death comes in many guises: the variety of tortures in store during wartime is unlimited.

In his latest book, Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist who lives in Lahore, has an essay called ‘Living in the age of permawar‘ in which he writes:

Humanity is afflicted by a great mass murderer about whom we are encouraged not to speak. The name of that murderer is Death. Death comes for everyone. Sometimes Death will pick out a newborn still wet from her aquatic life in her mother’s womb. Sometime Death will pick out a man with the muscles of a superhero, pick him out in repose, perhaps, or in his moment of maximum exertion, when his thighs and shoulders are trembling and he feels most alive. Sometimes Death will pick singly. Sometimes Death will pick by the planeload. Sometimes Death picks the young, sometimes the old, and sometimes Death has an appetite for the in-between.

You feel it is strange that humanity does not come together to face this killer, like a silver-flashing baitball of 7 billion fish aware of being hunted by a titanic and ravenous shark. Instead, humanity scatters. We face our killer alone, or in families, or in towns or cities or tribes or countries. But never all together.

Death divides us because often it assumes human form. It makes of one of its future victims a present instrument. And so we humans have come to fear each other. And, because we humans can clearly be beaten, as adversaries we are far more attractive than Death itself, and so we humans have come to plan and scheme to defeat us humans, to build great superstructures of law and belief and politics and violence out of our fears of the Death we see reflected in ourselves.

There is no shark, we 7 billion shimmering fish say, there are only cannibals.

That, I think, is what Bruegel’s great painting represents: that Death is not something outside of our common humanity, but is within us, galvanised by our religions and our ideologies. Bruegel holds up the mirror, but says no more. Mohsin Hamid concludes his essay by offering hope that Bruegel, for whatever reason, chose to omit from his painting:

So you are a reader, a writer, in this, the time of the permawar, searching, among other things, for empathy, for transcendence, for encounters that need not divide us into clans, for stories that can be told around a campfire generous enough for 7 billion, stories that transcend divisions, question the self and the boundaries of groups, stories that are a shared endeavour not at the level of the tribe, but of the human, that remind us we are not adversaries, we are in it together, the great mass murderer, Death, has us all in its sights, and we would do well not to allow ourselves willingly to be its instruments, but instead to recognise one another with compassion, not as predatory cannibals, but as meals for the same shark, each with a limited, precious time to abide, a time that deserves our respect and our wonder, a time that is a story, each of us a story, each of them a story, and each of these other stories, quite possibly, just as unique, just as frightened, as tiny, as vast, as made up as our own.