The Danse Macabre

La Grande Danse Macabre

Reprint of the title image from a 1486 printing.

Most people have at least heard of something called ‘The Danse Macabre’, though when pressed for details they seem to draw a blank. I recently spent some time asking random people if they could tell me what it was, and the most common answer was “I don’t know.” I do not recall the subject ever being mentioned in school as I grew up, so the lack of knowledge is not a complete surprise. Still, it has been a persistent allegory from at least as far back as 1424, is still in use today, and it’s influence has been fairly widespread. So the fact that it’s simple message has flown under the radar of most people is unexpected.

And what is that simple message? That it is an unavoidable fact of life that we will all die, and in death we are all equal. It was meant to remind us of the fragility of life, and to demonstrate the vanity of wealth, power and prestige. When stated in simple terms like that, it suddenly becomes quite obvious why the message is lost today. Today’s popular culture has not only forgotten this idea, but it teaches us the complete opposite. In modern culture, which is far more secularized than medieval culture, we actively pursue fame and fortune. We celebrate the rich and famous among us. Where the majority of people in medieval society worried almost incessantly about their place in the afterlife, today we are far and away more concerned with the here and now. The world today (at least for those of
us in the developed nations) is a vastly different one than it was in the early 1400′s when the danse macabre originated. We live a great deal longer, and we have endless distractions, toys and entertainments at our disposal, provided we have the wealth to afford them. The threat of death, in the form of the Black Plague for example, is not constantly over our heads. The dead and dying do not litter our streets. Instead, they are secluded in hospitals, in some third world country, on a battlefield in some other country, or on the television or movie screen as entertainment. Out of sight, out of mind.  We are almost always insulated from the full force of it. Death, for most of us, is a sterile, clean affair involving a prepared body dressed up and presented in a coffin, then buried and forgotten. It is a very controlled and orchestrated interaction.

The Danse Macabre in Painting

A danse macabre painting would typically 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 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 earliest recorded visual instance of the danse macabre was in the form of a now lost mural in the Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris. Between August 1424 and Lent 1425, during the Anglo-Burgundian alliance when John Duke of Bedford ruled Paris as Regent after the deaths of Henry V of England and Charles VI of France, a mural of the Danse Macabre was painted on the back wall of the arcade below the charnel house on the south side of the cemetery. It was one of the earliest and best-known depictions of
this theme. It was destroyed in 1669 when this wall was demolished to allow the narrow road behind it to be widened. This is also the same cemetery that was eventually closed due to overcrowding and unhealthy conditions. The bodies were later exhumed and relocated, used as decoration within the catacombs beneath the city.

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 in Hrastovlje in Istria by John of Kastav (1490); and woodcuts designed in the early 1520s by Hans Holbein the Younger and executed by Hans Lützelburger (published 1538). 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.

Bernt Notke's Danse Macabre (St Nicholas' Church, Tallinn, Estonia)

Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre (St Nicholas’ Church, Tallinn, Estonia)

Bernt Notke's Danse Macabre (detail, panel 1)

Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre (detail, panel 1)

Bernt Notke's Danse Macabre (detail, panel 2)

Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre (detail, panel 2)

Bernt Notke's Danse Macabre (detail, panel 3)

Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre (detail, panel 3)

Bernt Notke's Danse Macabre (detail, panel 4)

Bernt Notke’s Danse Macabre (detail, panel 4)

The Dance of Death by Vincent Kastav, 1471

The Dance of Death by Vincent Kastav, 1471

John of Kastav was a 15th-century Istrian artist, a native of Kastav (Croatia).

He painted the frescoes in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Hrastovlje, which included a famous Danse Macabre. According to the inscription, which identifies the artist as magister Johannes de Castua, the frescoes were commissioned in 1482, and completed in 1490.

Danse Macabre, John of Kastav (1490)

Danse Macabre, John of Kastav (1490)

The Triumph of Death is an oil panel painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted c. 1562. It has been in the Museo del Prado in Madrid since 1827.  The painting shows a panorama of an army of skeletons wreaking havoc across a blackened, desolate landscape. Fires burn in the distance, and the sea is littered with shipwrecks. A few leafless trees stud hills otherwise bare of vegetation; fish lie rotting on the shores of a corpse-choked pond. Art historian James Snyder emphasizes the “scorched, barren earth, devoid of any life as far as the eye can see.” In this setting, legions of skeletons advance on the living, who either flee in terror or try in vain to fight back. In the foreground, skeletons haul a wagon full of skulls; in the upper left corner, others ring the bell that signifies the death knell of the world. A fool plays the lute while a skeleton behind him plays along; a starving dog nibbles at the face of a child; a cross sits in the center of the painting. People are herded into a trap decorated with crosses, while a skeleton on horseback kills people with a scythe. The painting depicts people of different social backgrounds – from peasants and soldiers to nobles as well as a king and a cardinal – being taken by death indiscriminately.
A skeleton parodies human happiness by playing a hurdy-gurdy while the wheels of his cart crush a man. A woman has fallen in the path of the death cart; she holds in her hand a spindle and distaff, classical symbols of the fragility of human life. The slender thread is about to be cut by the scissors in her other hand. Just below her a cardinal is helped towards his fate by a skeleton who mockingly wears the red hat, while a dying king’s barrel of gold coins is looted by yet another skeleton. In one detail, a dinner has been broken up and the diners are putting up a futile resistance. They have drawn their swords in order to fight the skeletons dressed in winding-sheets; no less hopelessly, the jester takes refuge beneath the dinner table. The backgammon board and the playing cards have been scattered, while a skeleton thinly disguised with a mask empties away the wine flasks. Above, a woman is being embraced by a skeleton in a hideous parody of after-dinner amorousness.
The painting shows aspects of everyday life in the mid-sixteenth century. Clothes are clearly depicted, as are pastimes such as playing cards and backgammon. It shows objects such as musical instruments, an early mechanical clock, scenes including a funeral service, and various
methods of execution, including the breaking wheel, the gallows, and the headsman.
Bruegel combines two distinct visual traditions within the panel. These are his native tradition of Northern woodcuts of the Dance of Death and the Italian conception of the Triumph of Death, as in frescoes he would have seen in the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo and in the Camposanto Monumentale at Pisa.
The Triumph of Death

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562

Jacopo Ligozzi (1547–1627) was an Italian painter, illustrator, designer, and miniaturist. His art can be categorized as late-Renaissance and Mannerist styles.
Born in Verona, he was the son of the artist Giovanni Ermano Ligozzi, and part of a large family of painters and artisans. After a time in the Habsburg court in Vienna where he displayed drawings of animal and botanical specimens, he was invited to come to Florence, receiving the patronage of the Medici as one of the court artists.
Upon the death of Giorgio Vasari in 1574, he became head of the Accademia e Compagnia delle Arti del Disegno, the officially patronized guild of artists, which was often called to advise on diverse projects. He served Francesco I, Ferdinando I, Cosimo II and Ferdinando II, Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Late in life, he was named director of the grand-ducal Galleria dei Lavori, a workshop providing designs for artworks made mainly for export: embroidered textiles and for the newly popular medium of pietre dure, mosaics of semiprecious stones and colored marbles.
In Florence, he painted some frescoes for the cloister of the Ognissanti. The frescoes depict episodes of the life of St Francis of Assisi.
He painted for Santa Maria Novella a canvas of St. Raymond resuscitating a Child and a Martyrdom of St. Dorothea for the church of the Conventuali at Pescia. His altar pieces depict crowds in staged positions, robbed of emotion; the painting breath an academic staleness that is typical of Florentine painting of the age.
In his many pen-and-wash drawings on religious or mythologic images or for heraldic images, Ligozzi breathed a greater originality. He is known best for his depictions of fauna and flora; Ligozzi in this part of his work reflects the nascent scientific pursuits of the Medici, particularly with his botanical work. His botanically correct depictions of plants can even include exquisitely observed root systems. Ligozzi was commissioned to create some of the depictions found in the encyclopedic visual catalogue of the plant collections of Bolognese Ulisse Aldrovandi (kept in the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe of the Uffizi Gallery). He is an Audubon of late Renaissance Florence. He is credited with bringing the lusher color-palate of Verona to Florence.  While he was not known predominantly for his danse macabre pen-and-wash work, he did a few outstanding pieces that I had to include.
He was influential among some subsequent Florentines including Bartolomeo Bimbi, among direct pupils are Donato Mascagni, known as Frate Arsenio. His nephew Bartolommeo Ligozzi was also a painter. In Florence, he worked on some projects with Bernardino Poccetti. Both Agostino Carracci and Andrea Andreani engraved some of his works.  He died in Florence.
Jacopo Ligozzi

Pen and wash work by Jacopo Ligozzi

Jacopo Ligozzi

Pen and wash piece by Jacopo Ligozzi

Jacopo Ligozzi

Pen and wash piece by Jacopo Ligozzi

Jacopo Ligozzi

Pen and wash piece by Jacopo Ligozzi

Hans Holbein's Death Alphabet

Hans Holbein’s Death Alphabet, woodcuts, 1593

The Triumph of Death, Giacomo Borlone de Buschis, 1485

The Triumph of Death, Giacomo Borlone de Buschis, 1485

The Triumph of Death, Giacomo Borlone de Buschis, 1485

The Triumph of Death, Giacomo Borlone de Buschis, 1485

Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

While these may be the earliest visual examples, the origins of the danse macabre date further back, and remain somewhat in question. One theory claims that the French term ‘danse macabre’ was derived from the Latin Chorea Machabæorum, literally “dance of the Maccabees.” The story of the Maccabees is told in 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, which are part of the Septuagint, and in 3 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees, which are not. 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees are part of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Old Testaments, but not the Protestant or Hebrew Bible. In 2 Maccabees, 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 maqabir (cemetery) being the root of the word. Other
connections have been suggested, as for example with St. Macarius, or Macaire, the hermit, who, according to Vasari, is to be identified with the figure pointing to the decaying corpses in the Pisan Triumph of Death. Another claim is that the word “Macabre” comes from the Hebrew “mhkbr” (pronounced “Mehakever”), meaning “from the grave”.
Furthermore, 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.

Totentanz textbook

Page from the Totentanz, 1460

Totentanz textbook

Page from the Totentanz, 1460

Usually, a short dialogue is attached to each victim, 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, approx. 1460), 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

The dance finishes (or sometimes starts) with a summary of the allegory’s main point:

Wer war der Thor, wer der Weise[r],
“Who was the fool, who the wise [man],
Wer der Bettler oder Kaiser?
who the beggar or the Emperor?
Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich.
Whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death.”

The Bern Minster Stained Glass Window

The figures on the Münster window were done by Niklaus Manuel between 1516 and 1519. The stained glass window in the Cathedral is an excellent example of this theme. The window shows death, in the form of a skeleton, claiming people from every station in life.

Bern Dance of Death Stained Glass

Dance of Death Stained Glass Window, Bern Minster, Niklaus Manuel, 1516-1519

Bern Dance of Death Stained Glass

Bern Dance of Death Stained Glass, detail

There are still many artists even today who draw inspiration from the danse macabre.  I found the following interesting piece by Dominic Murphy:

Dance of Death by Dominic Murphy

Dance of Death by Dominic Murphy

And the following screenshot from a video game:

Dance of Death

Dance of Death, PC Game, BD Studio Games

And check out this series of linocuts by artist Kreg Yingst:

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death Kreg Yingst

Dance of Death, Kreg Yingst

The Dance Macabre did not only appear in paintings and print. From as far back as the late 1500′s, and continuing today, it has been a common musical setting, adapted to everything from classical music to heavy metal.

Liszt’s Totentanz

Totentanz is the name of a symphonic piece for solo piano and orchestra by Franz Liszt, which is notable for being based on the Gregorian plainchant melody Dies Irae as well as for daring stylistic innovations. The piece was originally planned in 1838 and completed in 1849; it was then revised twice, however, in 1853 and 1859.
Some of the titles of Liszt’s pieces, such as Totentanz, Funérailles, La lugubre gondola, Pensée des morts, etc., show the composer’s obsession with death. In the young Liszt we can already observe manifestations of his obsession with death, with religion, and with heaven and hell. According to Alan Walker, Liszt frequented Parisian “hospitals, gambling casinos and asylums” in the early 1830s, and he even went down into prison dungeons in order to see those condemned to die.
Another source of inspiration for the young Liszt was the famous fresco “Triumph of Death” by Francesco Traini (at Liszt’s time attributed to Andrea Orcagna and today also to Buonamico Buffalmacco) in the Campo Santo, Pisa. Liszt had eloped to Italy with his mistress, the Countess d’Agoult, and in 1838 he visited Pisa. Only ten years later, Liszt’s first sketches materialized into a complete version of his Totentanz. Revisions followed in 1853 and 1859, and its final form was first performed at The Hague on 15 April 1865 by Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow, to whom the work is dedicated.

Camille Saint-Saëns

Danse Macabre, Op. 40, is a tone poem for orchestra, written in 1874 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It started out in 1872 as an art song for voice and piano with a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis, which is based in an old French superstition. In 1874, the composer expanded and reworked the piece into a tone poem, replacing the vocal line with a solo violin.
According to legend, “Death” appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance their dance of death for him while he plays his fiddle (here represented by a solo violin). His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.
The piece makes particular use of the xylophone to imitate the sounds of rattling bones.
An English translation of the poem follows:

Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.
The winter wind blows, and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
White skeletons pass through the gloom,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
You can hear the cracking of the bones of the dancers.
A lustful couple sits on the moss
So as to taste long lost delights.
Zig zig, zig, Death continues
The unending scraping on his instrument.
A veil has fallen! The dancer is naked.
Her partner grasps her amorously.
The lady, it’s said, is a marchioness or baroness
And her green gallant, a poor cartwright.
Horror! Look how she gives herself to him,
Like the rustic was a baron.
Zig, zig, zig. What a saraband!
They all hold hands and dance in circles.
Zig, zig, zag. You can see in the crowd
The king dancing among the peasants.
But hist! All of a sudden, they leave the dance,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.
Oh what a beautiful night for the poor world!
Long live death and equality!

Songs and Dances of Death, 1875–77, by Modest Mussorgsky

Symphony No. 4, 2nd Movement, 1901, by Gustav Mahler

The second movement is a scherzo, which would be expected as a third movement structure rather than a second. This movement features a solo part for a violin whose strings are tuned a tone higher than usual. The violin depicts Freund Hein, (lit. “Friend Henry”) a figure from medieval German art; Hain (or Hein) is a traditional German personification of death, invented by poet Matthias Claudius. Freund Hein is a skeleton who plays the fiddle and leads a Totentanz or “danse macabre”. According to Mahler’s widow, Alma, Mahler took inspiration for this movement from the 1872 painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin entitled: ‘Self-Portrait with Death playing the Fiddle. The scherzo represents his dance and the unusual tuning of the violin adds tension to its sound and contributes to the music’s ghostly character.

“Scherzo (Dance of Death),” in Op. 14 Ballad of Heroes, 1939, by Benjamin Britten

“Dance of Death,” 1944, by Dmitri Shostakovich

The Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites, 1964, by John Fahey, includes the song “Dance of Death,” a finger-style guitar solo in G minor tuning.

Dance with Death, 1968, by Andrew Hill

Black Angels, 1971, by George Crumb.  This video takes a little time to ramp up, but it is worth listening to if you have never heard it.  Truly unique and disturbing.

Steeleye Span recorded Shaking of the Sheets, a traditional song about dancing with death on their 1989 album Tempted and Tried.

Danse Macabre, 1985, by Celtic Frost, from their Morbid Tales album.

Dance of Death, 2003, by Iron Maiden

Dance of Death is the thirteenth studio album by British heavy metal band Iron Maiden.
According to guitarist Janick Gers, the album’s title track was inspired by the final scene of
Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, at the end of which “these figures on the horizon start doing a little jig, which is the dance of death.”

The Skeleton Dance, 1929, Disney

The Skeleton Dance is a 1929 Silly Symphonies animated short subject produced and directed by Walt Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks. In the film, four human skeletons dance and make music around a spooky graveyard – a modern film example of medieval European “danse macabre” imagery. It is the first entry in the Silly Symphonies series. In 1994, it was voted #18 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.

The Skeleton Dance

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