D is for Danse Macabre

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

Medieval Europe faced deadly horrors such as the 100 Year War, hardship, and famine. In the wake of the terrifying Black Plague of 1347-1349 AD, a fascination with the macabre took over popular iconography. Skeletons, graves, bones, and grinning skulls appeared in art, with the “Danse Macabre” joining the popular culture.

Translated from French to “morbid dance,” many identify it as a “dance with death.” Ever-present death inspired a desire for amusements. The depictions present a “last dance as a cold comfort,” an allegory to treasure each day.

Cloaked personifications of Death eating, drinking, dancing, and riding horseback with seemingly healthy people from all walks of life served as reminders of mortality. From Popes and Kings to Laborers and Beggars, young and old grasp the bony fingers. The Dans Macabre was a trendy motif that spread through Europe’s arts, including architecture, sculpture, art, and literature.

They popped spectral visages into woodcuts, grave markers, and cenotaphs, often with Death enjoying activities with the living. One of the earliest depictions of the Danse Macabre is from Le Innocents Cemetery in Paris dating from 1424-1425 AD. Michael Wolgemut, Hans Holbein, and Albrecht Durer created intricate woodcuts. Many other depictions of the Danse Macabre are found in painted scenes including Basel (1440 AD), canvas oil paintings by Bernt Notke in Lubeck from 1463, 1540’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, and frescoes and murals.

Didactic dialogue poems and works of literature invited the specter to share thoughts on the social equalizing brought by the final rest. Epitaphs and poetic verse often nod to this old practice. Memento mori, or reminders of death’s inevitability, no matter the station in life.

“Golden lads and girls all must as chimney-sweeps come to dust.”

Or “Such as I am, so shall thou be.”

Life is fragile and the glories found on earth fall away like rotting flesh.

This motif continues today. From Sylvia Plath to Iron Maiden, the Dance of Death lives on.

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