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Middle Ages Paul Gauguin, Madame la Mort, 1890-1891, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Published on November 9th, 2016 | by Zuzanna Stanska

Dancing With Skeletons (Danse Macabre)

Danse macabre – a weird dance of people and skeletons. You could think that it is some kind of a scene from a horror movie. But surprisingly, it is a medieval allegorical concept of the all-conquering and equalizing power of death. Ready for the story full of death and skeletons?

Dance of death is a literary or pictorial representation of a procession or dance of both living and dead figures, the living arranged in order of their rank, from pope and emperor to child, clerk, and hermit, and the dead leading them to the grave. They were produced as mementos mori, to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain were the glories of earthly life.

The dance of death had its origins in late 13th- or early 14th-century poems that combined the essential ideas of the inevitability and the impartiality of death. The motif became popular as result of the obsession with death inspired by an epidemic of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, recurring famines and the devastation of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between France and England.

Dance of Death, St. Bernard of Siena Church, Cracow, the end of 18th century, photo: www.bernardyni.com.pl

Dance of Death, St. Bernard of Siena Church, Cracow, the end of 18th century, photo: www.bernardyni.com.pl

The earliest known example of the fully developed dance of death concept is a series of paintings (1424–25) formerly in the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris. In this series the whole hierarchy of church and state formed a stately dance, the living alternating with skeletons or corpses escorting them to their destination. The Paris danse macabre was destroyed in 1699, but a reproduction or free rendering can be seen in the woodcuts of the Paris printer Guy Marchant (1485), and the explanatory verses have been preserved.

Danse macabre. Paris, Guy Marchant, 1st edition, 1458

Danse macabre. Paris, Guy Marchant, 1st edition, 1458

In 1523–26 the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger made a series of drawings of the subject, perhaps the culminating point in the pictorial evolution of the dance of death, which were engraved by the German Hans Lützelburger and published at Lyon in 1538. In Holbein’s work, Death is still very aggressive; however, it does not dance with the deads anymore, but intervenes directly in scenes of everyday life. Apart from a few isolated mural paintings in northern Italy, the theme did not become popular south of the Alps.

The Noble Lady, or Bride, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524 and 1526, Kunstmuseum Basel

The Noble Lady, or Bride, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524 and 1526, Kunstmuseum Basel

The concept of the dance of death lost its awesome hold in the Renaissance, but the universality of the theme inspired its revival in French 19th-century Romantic literature and in 19th- and 20th-century music.

Paul Gauguin, Madame la Mort, 1890-1891, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Paul Gauguin, Madame la Mort, 1890-1891, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In 1957 it was effectively used as the visual climax of Ingmar Bergman’s motion picture The Seventh Seal.

Gif from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seven Seal, 1957

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About the Author

Art Historian, huge fan of Giorgione or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Founder and CEO of DailyArtDaily.com and DailyArt mobile app. But to be honest, her greatest accomplishment is being the owner of Pimpek the Cat.



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