Visual Arts


History of the Dance of Death Theme

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[Source: Marcia Collins. The Dance of Death in Book Illustration, Catalog to an Exhibition of the Collection in the Ellis Library of the University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, April 1-30, 1978. On the occasion of the Annual Spring Meeting of the Midwest Chapter of the American. Note: The following text excludes the Catalog and Illustrations.]

Towards the end of fhe fourteenth century in that transitional period which marks the beginning of the Renaissance, men's sights shifted. The momentous changes in the political and economic spheres accompanied by the intellectual discovery of the world of man. In art and literature came a concern for observing and describing this world. Man was no longer seen as a small, indistinct figure in the divine landscape. He could be a self-conscious, critical individual who was important for himself. In art the discovery of new techniques helped the expressions of these changes to flourish. The less forma genres of woodcuts, etchings and engravings, all developed during the fifteenth century, were less expensive and easier to produce in multiple copies. The artistic interpretations of man's new world were accessible to a broadened audience which included the members of the rapidly expanding middle class.

One of the most striking conceptions born of this era was the Dance of Death. In the Dance, which can be seen either as a warning or a symbolic portrayal of the moment of death, is seen in the confrontation of a skeleton or corpse with a living person. At its most basic level the Dance is merely the visual opposition of the appearance of the living and the dead. The encounter emphasizes the physical differences  between the living body and its dead double ó a decayed soul-less corpse which is animated by some unnatural liveliness. But the simplicity of the scene is complicated by its meaning, for what is seen symbolizes a moment of passage when the soul departs from the body, leaving the mundane world for the realm of the sacred and eternal. Its force comes from our knowledge that it is a most important moment in man's life. Yet contrary to the solemnity of the occasion, Death is dancing and one feels mocking. Death seems to scorn man's worldly struggles for status and wealth, indidcating that these count for nothing at the time of death.

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The theme of the Dance of Death seems to have had its initial appearance in wall-paintings in churches where it was also performed as a liturgical drama to illustrate sermons. While examples have been discovered in other countries, the use of the Dance as a decorative motif for ecclesiastical settings seems to have predominated in France and Germany. In these early versions the participants in the Dance were the ecclesiastical and lay members of medieval society. Each sector was arranged hierarchically from the most important person to the least, and then the two orders were interwoven into a procession in which the clergy and lay persons were paired with their equivalents in social status. The Emperor followed the Pope, and the King stood next to the Cardinal. This detailed classification of the medieval society provides a good, if somewhat simplified picture of the social, political and economic realities of the time. As we study [15] the progress of the Dance of Death it is interesting to observe the variation in its participants. A product of social conventions and artistic license, the Dance of Death remains a contemporary social document as later artists adapted the theme. The choice of professions and members of various classes mirrors the life of the times, depicting the arrangement of society and social relationships, defining status and satirizing excesses and social injustice. It is a common belief that the Dance of Death originated with the plagues which swept through Europe in the mid-fourteenth century. The Black Death was undoubtedly a strong influence because of the arbitrary way in which death struck and the plague must have heightened artists' awareness of the appearance of death. The Dance of Death was one way of dealing with the magnitude of death brought about by the plague. However long before the fourteenth century ideas and images of death appeared in literature, folklore and art which may equally be said to contribute to the later crystallization of the Dance of Death in the fifteenth century.

Representations of skeletons in art are at least as old as the ancient Egyptians who passed around small mummies during their feasts as a reminder of the fleeting nature of worldly pleasures. In Roman times a skeleton was carved as a memento mori on antique intaglios. Throughout the Middle Ages the skeleton was seen in depictions of the Adam's Tomb, the Last Judgment, the Legend of St. Stanislaus and the Vision of Ezekiel. An interesting example of the artistic use of dancing skeletons is found in the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism whose death dance is part of a mystery play throughout which elaborate masks are worn. The masks [16] belonging to the graveyard ghouls are pale-faced with red-ringed eyes, flattened noses and compressed mouths. The dancers wore clothing painted to look like skeletons. The art of Lamaism also has representations of skeletons dancing over a corpse. According to the myths these ghosts were the lords of the graveyard in the nether regions. The picture of a pair of skeletons dancing over a corpse is a common one in Lamaist households. But these examples may be considered only as parallel similar artistic expressions which lack any direct relation to the European Dance of Death. There is no evidence of any connection between the Oriental and Western forms of the death dance. Because of the different cultural and religious contexts out of which the artistic forms arose, the similarity must be regarded as a visual coincidence illustrating a common human response to the fact of death.

Although the medieval Dance of Death was inseparably connected to the Christian interpretation of the purpose of man's life, the figure of Death may have pagan roots which originate in Teutonic mythology. The idea of Death as a dancing figure who comes to lead men away, or as an attacking figure bearing a spear or scythe is very old and indigenous to the Germanic myths. Death is portrayed as a figure hiding or waiting in the background who appears suddenly. As a messenger Death carries a staff, the symbol of a journey or delegated authority; with this wand he touches whatever has fallen his due. Often like the Valkyries Death appears mounted; setting his victims on his horse he carries them away. And it is not unusual for Death to play an instrument or perform a dance. The messengers of old were often pipers or fiddlers who made music while the dead [17] danced around in a circle. Before the appearance of more formalized literary and artistic versions of the Dance of Death, even Christian men's feeling about death were expressed in myths and traditions, in superstitions of graveyard dances, and in the ceremonies of demonic sects. The theme seems seems to have had its first literary expression during the twelfth century in poems, legends and sermons which have survived in contemporary manuscripts and copies.

One of the most popular variations on the theme of death was the Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead. The Legend tells of the encounter of three young men, or in some versions, kings, with three corpses portrayed in various states of decay. The dead speak to the living, warning them: "We were once what you are. What we are you shall be." The Legend was intended as a serious moral lesson which cautioned men to live pious lives according to the demands of the eternal life of the soul rather than the fleeting life of the body. The unexpected confrontation exploited man's fear of death by its description of a surprising and unsettling encounter with death at an early age. Illustrated manuscripts of the poem date from the thirteenth century and a large number of illuminations and wall-paintings have survived from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is possible that the Dance of Death represents an expansion of the Legend in which all members of society encounter their dead doubles.

Later on illustrated versions of the Legend were often included in the printed editions of the Danse macabre. "Les Vers de la Mort" was written by.a monk Helinand de Froidmont between 1193 and 1197. The theme of the poem is the duty of men to remember [18] and to prepare for death. In order to keep death in the forefront of men's minds and to inspire a salutary fear of death, the poet bids Death to visit his friends and contemporaries. First Death should go to see the princes, then to Rome to the Pope and the cardinals, and finally to the bishops in all regions of France, Italy and England. As an antecedent of the Dance of Death "Les Vers de la Mort" is important because of its description of various levels of society, but Death is the foe only of the higher ranks who are sinful in their worldliness. Death is an abstract figure rather than the dead counterpart of the living. The poem emphasizes the intimate connection death has with the judgment of the living on the basis of their earthly actions while fulfilling their roles in society.

At approximately this same time Pope Innocent III wrote De Contemptu Mundi, whose text deals with the misery of man's life on earth, the anguish of the final judgment and torture in hell. Dwelling upon the work of the worms in one's grave and leaving little to his audience's imagination, Innocent's message was a strong one directed at every sinful man descended from Adam. It was aimed especially at those who would forget death in the pursuit of honor, riches and power. Innocent's characterization of death as not mere non-existence but a vividly described putrescence seems intended to evoke the feeling of one's own body rotting. Such an intense and strangely fascinating.vision of death seems closely related to the conception of the Dance of Death. Innocent's writings also mark a change in spirituality which was in part due to the rise of the orders of mendicant priests. In the midst of changing times the new orders such as the Dominicans and the [19] Franciscans prospered. In their sermons they criticized the pomposity and materialism of the great and powerful, castigating the decadence of the old orders of society. The poor and the weak were consoled with the promises of the future life.

Mystery plays, one of which may have been the Dance of Death, were performed to illustrate and enliven the sermons. Since artists as well as others heard these sermons, witnessed the plays, and collaborated in the production of the decorations and costumes, it is not farfetched to suppose that the liturgical dramas were soon transformed into independent works of art. The mendicant priests may have played an important role as the popularizers of the Dance of Death. However the immediacy of the vision of death seen in the folklore and literature of the late Middle Ages is but one part of the theme. The other essential element is the elaborate social order whose members are named and described in the Dance. While the Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead and "Les Vers de la Mort" stressed the punishment of the rich and the powerful, the couplets of the fourteenth century poems of the "Vado Mori" are addressed to representatives of all social strata. The poems contains appropriate warnings to persons as diverse as the Pope, the Doctor, the Fool and the Poor Man. The verses written for the Doctor are: "Vado mori medicus, medicamine non redimendus, Quidquid agat medici potio, vado mori." (Hurry to die, Doctor, no medicine will help you, Whatever potion you take, hurry to die, Doctor.) Yet the "Vado Mori" contain no detailed description of death nor a figure of death; its verses are not dialogues of the living and the dead; and while the flow of the poetry may convey the feeling of a procession, there is no dance. The idea that death bypasses no one is prominent. Death is [20] seen not as a punishment for the wicked but as a universal fact.


In 1424 a Dance of Death was painted on the walls of the Cimitiere des Innocents in Paris. Situated on the right bank of the Seine opposite L'Ile de la Cite the cemetery was used by most of the parishes in Paris. Being a small plot of land it was always full of the newly buried dead. These were removed periodically from the earth and stored in the cribs around the walls of the cemetery. Shops and markets were around the walls outside the cemetery so that many people passed by everyday. After the painting of the Dance of Death had been completed the Cimitiere des Innocents became a major sight for travellers in Paris. John Lydgate came from England and copied the verses, translating them so that the Danse macabre became well-known in his own country. Unfortunately the cemetery and its wallpainting had to be destroyed in 1786 because the ground had become so putrid. Exactly how the Dance of Death at Innocents looked is not known today but it was copied many times by fresco and panel painters and by the designer of the woodcuts for the first French edition of the Danse macabre printed in Paris by Guy Marchant in 1485. The verses of the text were in French, copied from the walls above the cemetery, as it was said were the woodcuts themselves. Given the drastic change in medium from paintings to the hard edges of outlines cut into wood, the renderings of the wall-painting cannot be considered a close copy in the strict sense. However most of the attitudes and attributes of the figures match the [23] verses of the wall-painting which is known from manuscript copies as well as Marchant's printed edition.

Aside from the strikingly realistic portrayal of the figures of the dead, a unique characteristic of the fully developed Dance of Death as seen in the Danse macabre is the depiction of medieval society in a hierarchical arrangment of the persons who take part in the dance. The careful classification of the social order and the descriptive illustrations of the pictures and text are reminiscent of both Aristotelean and scholastic philosophy with their precise attention to definitions and symmetrical systems. Contemporary society is depicted by division into classes and professions which are illustrated as social or professional types.

In the Danse macabre almost half of the entire number of persons in the procession as clerics, emphasizing the importance of the Church as a social force in the Middle Ages. Social status is indicated by the living person's placement near the beginning or the end of the dance and by his dress and physical characteristics. Many carry a distinctive attribute of their profession: the jailer wears his keys, the pilgrim and the herdsman have staffs, and many of the higher ranking ecclesiastics hold crooks or crosses. The characters of the social types are also revealed by their physiognomy and bearing. Tradesmen and other members of the lower classes are bent over and have craggy, wrinkled visages, while the members of the upper classes stand up straight and seem to march along proudly with faces which are smoother and more refined. Compared to their dead partners, the living possess little animation. In the Marchant woodcuts it is the dead who are most active, grinning and leering at the viewer. They are not skeletons; they are merely emaciated to the point where their [24] bones show through their skin. Some wear shrouds or winding cloths. Their mid-sections are blackened from decay and there are glimpses of tiny white worms within the split-open body cavities. This new look of death is characteristic of the new realism in fifteenth-century art. After centuries during which death was portrayed as a quiet and dignified repose, death is observed and depicted in terms of its physical consequences rather than its spiritual meaning. Although the text beneath the woodcuts contains a dialogue between the living and the dead, the illustrations carry little indication of conversation. The living stand stiffly like cut-outs and show little or no emotion.

The significance of the Danse macabre is conveyed to the viewer by the appearance and gestures of the figures of the dead who seem alive with atrocious gaiety. The idea of the dance is communicated by the animated manner of the dead who link arms with the living and urge all to move along in a spirited fashion. The initial woodcut of a cleric at a reading desk may document the origins of the Danse macabre as a liturgical drama or wall-painting used to illustrate a sermon. A similar scene of a preacher in a pulpit was often used as the introductory illustration in the German Dances of Death. Just as the performances of the Dance of Death were preceded by a sermon and the wall-paintings of the Dance were situated in churches or other religious buildings, the introductory portrait of the preacher set the medieval Dance of Death in its proper didactic context. [25]


By the final decade of the fifteenth century the Danse macabre had become a popular motif for the decoration of ecclesiastical architecture and for illustrating manuscripts and printed books. At this same time a number of Parisian printers adapted the series for use as border decorations in their Books of Hours. Previously manuscript copies of the service books had been illuminated by hand, so that a relatively small number of copies was available to those who bought them or commissioned their production. With the advent of printing a large number of copies could be mass-produced and made accessible to a wider public. Woodand metalcuts were used to illustrate these less expensive editions whose formats were modeled on the illuminated manuscripts. The blocks and plates for the decorative borders in the Books of Hours were most frequently illustrated scenes from the Bible, Jacob de Voragine's Legenda Aurea, the Vices and Virtues and the Danse macabre. To produce scenes of a size suitable for the bordercuts the procession of the dance was divided into single couples. Each vignette showed the appearance of Death to one person whose name appeared as part of the Gothic architecture of the frame. Usually three scenes from the Dance of Death were arranged in a vertical row on the outer edge of the page. The Danse macabre was used most often as border decorations for the pages of the Offices of the Dead. The printed editions of the Books of Hours must have been very popular, judging by the large number of copies which still remain from the period around 1498 to 1525. [26]


The early German Dances of Death may be divided into two groups which denote regional variations. The southern German Totentanz is known from several examples in manuscripts, blockbooks and incunabula. The most complete version of the latter is Der doten dantz which appeared in at least two editions in the last decades of the fifteenth century. The dance is introduced by two full-page illustrations of the Dance of the Dead in a cemetery and inside a bonehouse; these are similar to the first scene of four dead playing musical instruments in the Danse macabre. The woodcuts which follow are spare, simple representations of encounters of the living and the dead without architectural frames or the decorative plants which filled the background of the Danse macabre. Emphasis is given to the figure of Death who is portrayed as a trickster or a Spielmann (minstrel). Playing musical instruments and cavorting, the dead are humorous, active figures who actually seem to be dancing. Frogs or worms peer coyly from the depths of the corpses' blackened stomachs. Not seen in Der doten dantz is the rigid division and arrangement of society which appears in the Danse macabre. Although a descending order from the members of the upper classes to those in the lower strata remains, the alternation of clerical and lay persons has been dropped. In the first part of the dance the clerics precede the secular types and in the latter section there seems to be no precise order for the figures of the living. Women are included in the Totentanz and not segregated into a separate procession as in the Danse [macabre] des femmes. [27] Des dodes dantz first printed in Lubeck in 1489 is a northern German Dance of Death. In its illustrations the figure of Death is unlike the gay minstrel of Der doten dantz, appearing more like the corpses in the Danse macabre. The attributes of Death--the spear, the scythe, the sword and the spade--and his grim appearance and threatening posture are reminiscent of the figure of Death in Teutonic mythology. Neither the living or the dead are dancing. Each figure appears alone on a separate page, facing one another and addressing his counterpart only in the text. Although this is a very early Dance of Death, the simplified conception of the dance seems to have brought it a step beyond the stage of being a copy of a wall-painting or a liturgical drama to a new conception of a symbolic Dance of Death designed especially for book illustration.


 In Hartmann Schedel's Liber cronicarum published in Nuremberg in 1493 is the "Imago Mortis," a single woodcut of the Dance of the Dead. Three dead are shown dancing to the music of a shawm played by a fourth corpse. The dance takes place over the grave of another dead man who rises up and waves to the viewer. Depicting the seventh age of man in the chronicle, the woodcut stands by itself as a memento mori for the reader. The scene parallels the illustrations of the dancing dead which introduced the Danse macabre and Der doten dantz, representing the medieval superstition of graveyard dances. On certain nights it was believed that the dead rose from their graves and performed dances in the cemeteries before going out in search of their victims. As distinguished from the Dance of Death, the Dance of the Dead includes only dancing skeletons or corpses [28] and usually takes place in a graveyard or bonehouse. As illustrated editions of the Dance of Death gained in popularity, other scenes from the Dance were isolated and depicted in woodcuts, etchings and engravings on single sheets. Well-known artists such as Hans Baldung Grien, Israhel van Meckenem and the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet adapted the theme for their own use in fragmented form. The juxtaposition of an anatomically correct, decaying corpse with the well-formed, elaborately costumed figure of a youth or maiden offered distinct possibilities to an artist who wished to display the breadth of his talent in the portrayal of such a striking scene. In "Schonheit und Tod" (1509-1511) and "Tod und Madchen" (1515) Hans Baldung Grien depicted the encounter of Death and a beautiful young woman. Albrecht Durer emphasized the grim aspects of death in further variations on the theme in such works as the 1513 engraving of "Ritter, Tod und Teufel," in the woodcut of "Tod und Soldat," and an earlier drawing of Death mounted on a weary horse, the "Memento Mei" of 1505.

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The illustrations of the Dance of Death changed their appearance quite rapidly as artists became infected with the new spirit of the Renaissance. The medieval Dance had relied heavily on the ecclesiastical sector of society for the social types who took part in the dance, for the preaching or moralizing text which accompanied the illustrations of the dance, and for its very propagation as a popular motif for the decoration of religious books and architecture. The fifteenth century was the great period for wall-paintings of the Dance of Death in [29] in churches and cemeteries and this form of the theme died out gradually during the sixteenth century. After 1500 the medieval Dance of Death, which had for its ultimate meaning the punishment of man's sins and inspiration to a Christian life, changed its emphasis to become a close examination of man's condition by a detailed, often satirical representation of social types. This new approach was characteristic of contemporary book illustration; the participants in the Dance of Death are cousins of those seen in the Books of Trades and the Books of Fools which also were concerned with describing various types of men. Out of the confluence of the medieval Dance of Death and the new view of man in the Renaissance came the classical statement of the Dance of Death, Hans Holbein's Imagines Mortis. Hans Holbein was born around 1497 in Augsburg which had its own famous wall-painting of a Dance of Death. After living there for seventeen years he went to Basel. At this time Basel was an important center for printing; the Froben house was there. The city also possessed two fifteenth century wall-paintings of the Dance of Death. The earlier one in the Augustinian convent at Klingenthal is thought to have been done around 1440. It is referred to as the "Kleinbasel" dance because Klingenthal was a suburb of Basel. The so-called "Grossbasel" dance, which was better known, had been copied from the earlier painting about 1480. Being in the city proper it was in a more conspicuous and important spot, painted on the outer wall of the Dominican churchyard of the Predigerkirche. The dance at Klingenthal was neglected and eventually completely destroyed, while the dance at the Predigerkirche was renovated successively and extensively over the years.

[30] The Dances of Death at Basel are of great interest because, more than any others, they stand between the medieval Dances and Holbein's designs, since he most certainly knew of them. At one time the Basel paintings were even attributed to Holbein, but both historical and stylistic evidence weigh against this. Because it was destroyed in the nineteenth century the Basel Dance is known only from copies. In the seventeenth century engravings of the Dance were made by the artist and bookseller, Matthaeus Merian. Merian's copper-plates are considered to be the most faithful renderings of the wall-paintings at the Predigerkirche.

The Dance of Death at Basel was a typical medieval Totentanz. Introduced by a scene of the preacher in a pulpit and preceded by a death dance in a bonehouse, the Dance itself was a simple representation portraying a procession of couples of the living and the dead. Death is an active dancing figure, mocking his victim by mimicking his carriage or wearing an identical article of clothing in a rakish fashion. The living are dressed elaborately with much attention given to the details of their costumes. Although the appearance of the Basel Dance changed as it was restored, the copies made by Merian and others still convey a good general idea of what the Dance looked like when Holbein was working in Basel.

The drawings for Holbein's Dance of Death are thought to have been made around 1526. For Holbein the medium of the woodcut allowed for a freedom of expression which he did not have when painting the large canvases for which he received commissions. When he painted he was usually bound to follow the wishes of his client. When he sketched designs for woodcuts there was an opportunity to please himself, [31, The Heathen Woman (not shown); 33] and perhaps to inject a bit of satire or caricature which would have been considered improper on a more monumental scale. After this initial stage of work Holbein s role in the production of the prints ceased. He did not actually cut the woodblocks for his Dance of Death. This work was done by Hans Lutzelberger. The woodcuts did not appear until 1538, published not in Basel, but Lyons. In part this was due to the Reformation when severe censorship was imposed on controversial literature. The atmosphere of the time generally inhibited creative thinking and activity in Basel, and Holbein himself left for England in 1526 because of the lack of commissions due to a decline in prosperity in the area. The blocks which had been cut and the remaining designs were left with Lutzelberger who died a short while afterward. The Lyons printers, Melchior and Gaspar Trechsel, took possession of the blocks and sketches, since they had given Lutzelberger an advance shortly before his death, and published Holbein's Dance of Death. In his new conception of the Dance Holbein revised the old idea of a procession of the living and the dead. Instead he relied on the succession of pages in the book to achieve a similar effect. He retained the hierarchical arrangement of persons in the Dance but rather than beginning with the preacher in the pulpit, he began with Creation, explaining through illustrations to Genesis, how death came into the world.

The Dance itself is introduced by a bonehouse scene, like the ones in the medieval Totentanze and follows with scenes depicting the encounters of the living and the dead. Rather than being a simple scene of Death leading his victim away, in Holbein's designs a living drama is depicted, showing the sudden intrusion of death into life. [34] Holbein's virtuosity lies in his creation of a minutely detailed environment which describes perfectly the person caught by Death. While the face of Death's victim is usually without any visible emotion, his clothing and the objects which surround him are given careful attention. All contribute to a symbolism of everyday objects which are so well known that their mere presence bears a variety of implicit meanings which describe the person in their midst.

Holbein's Dance of Death shows the intersection of man's sacred and profane situation, depicting his daily activities interrupted by the metaphysical horror of death in the form of a mocking skeleton. The elements of humor and satire are often emphasized by several small jokes in the picture not unlike the tricks played on men by Death in the medieval Totentanz. The person upon whom Death intrudes is sometimes engaged in an activity which is particularly inappropriate to the moment, such as the Nun who is being serenaded by a lover. The skeleton is often a Doppeganger. Dressed in similar attire or adopting a characteristic attitude of the person whom he visits, Death is the double whom one encounters at the moment of death.

Holbein also designed an alphabet of the Dance of Death at about the same time as he did the book illustrations. It is composed of twenty-four initial letters in Roman square capitals each of which is illustrated with a scene from the Dance of Death. Although the scenes include the same persons as the Imagines Mortis, the renderings of the figures are quite different. In the alphabet Holbein dealt successfully with the problem of fitting the figures artistically into the small space dominated by the letter. This was accomplished by using the lines of the letter not as a prop or focus, but as a balance [35] to the action, letting the line emphasize the action by reiterating it or serving as a counterweight to it.


Holbein's designs for the Dance of Death adumbrated the succeeding Dances through the eighteenth century. Even editions of the Dance of Death which one would assume not to be influenced by Holbein at all, such as a copy of the Dance at Basel, turn out on examination to be copied from Holbein. This is the case with a small volume issued as a popular tourist book of the Dance of Death at the Predigerkirche. Der Todten-tantz...in der weitberuhmten Stadt Basel was published in many editions between 1588 and 1842. Most of its woodcuts are crude schematic copies of Holbein's designs but the names and order of the persons in the Dance are those of the Basel wall-painting. One wonders what those who had been to see the Dance at Basel thought of the copies which they brought home with them in this book.

A far more skillful copy of Holbein's Dance of Death was done in the seventeenth century by the Bohemian engraver Wenzel Hollar. Hollar's engravings are close copies of Holbein's originals, but the difference in style and technique renders the copies quite different works. The technique of engraving made possible a subtle variation of lines, so that heavy darks outline figures, while light, short lines define the background, details of the figures and objects and supply shading. Holbein's woodcuts rely on clarity and simplicity of line, while Hollar's technical virtuosity is seen in the multiplicity of fine lines used to show deep flowing folds, small [36] scenic details and even the wrinkles of skin around the bones of the dead. In Hollar's hands Holbein's Renaissance Dance of Death becomes baroque.

In the late eighteenth century the Basel engraver Christian von Mechel also made fine copies of Holbein's designs,the style of which was also somewhat removed from that of Holbein's originals. Mechel's works are very elegant and delicately executed engravings in which the linear quality of the technique is softened by light lines to become a painterly lyricism of dreamy shadows and flowing forms and folds. Mechel transformed the humorous, awkward Dance of Death into a graceful polonaise.

Copies of Holbein's woodcuts in other graphic media virtually ceased by the middle of the nineteenth century. With the revival of interest in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, there came an appreciation for the true forms and values of the old styles. From around 1850 and continuing to the present many editions of copies of the original woodcuts were published. In the test of time the classical form of the Dance of Death has won over its weaker interpretations by less original artists.


Out of the mainstream of the tradition of the Dance of Death are editions of sermons or meditations by priests which appeared in illustrated editions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As illustrations to religious texts the scenes lack the social commentary and satirical aspects of true Dances of Death, but they are closely related to the medieval and Renaissance traditions, sometimes borrowing directly from them.

[37] In 1669 the Varii e veri rittrati della morte by Giovanni Manni was published in Venice. It is a moral and didactic work on death similar to a previous book by the Jesuit father on the Four Last Things. The illustrations are somewhat crudely executed etchings, six of which are done in the manner of Holbein's Dance of Death woodcuts. The rest of the etchings are a mixture of emblematic illustrations and copies of the woodcuts to the Ars Moriendi another popular work of the fifteenth and sixteenth century on the art of dying well.

Warnings about the punishment of sinners at the time of death were the distinctive mark of the sermons of Abraham a Sancta Clara who was "Hof-Prediger" to the Emperor Leopold in Vienna. He was popular and famous for the entertaining style of his sermons which often included humorous verses rhymed in onomatopoetic fashion. All of Viennese society came to hear his sermons at the Church of Sancta Clara.

Mercks Wienn! published in 1680 was a collection of Father Abraham's sermons and writings. The book contains eight engravings seven of which are on the subject of death. The text speaks of the plague which struck Vienna in 1679 and warns the Viennese that God will punish them again if they aren't careful. Although the illustrations do not constitute a Dance of Death perhaps its success inspired the following collection of Abraham's works. In 1710 a year after Abraham's death Der Todten-Capelle oder Allgemeiner Todten-Spiegel was published by Christoph Weigel in Nuremberg. Its sixty-eight engravings were said to have been copied from paintings on the theme of death in the Chapel of Loretto in Vienna. Each of the series is based on a Biblical verse and several are similar to [38] Holbein's designs.

Another eighteenth-century variation on the Dance of Death whose illustrations were a mixture of Holbein's woodcuts and Biblical scenes was Het Schouw-Toneel des Doods by Salomon van Rusting published in Amsterdam in 1707. The author was a doctor in Amsterdam. Along with the two types of more or less traditional illustrations for Dances of Death were included some original scenes seemingly taken from Rusting's everyday life in Amsterdam such as skaters and tightrope-walkers. The final scene entitled "Einen Doctorirten-Poeten" and its accompanying text describes and illustrates the ironic plight of the author when confronted by the appearance of death.


During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries even original and gifted artists who designed illustrations to the Dance of Death were unable to escape the influence of Holbein's designs, but the appearance of their works was transformed both by the baroque style popular at this time and by the mature technique of copper-engraving. Woodcutting was considered to be a primitive technique; etching and engraving were at the height of fashion in the graphic arts. The demise of Holbein's technique signalled the end of the social satire and criticism characteristic of his designs as well. This aspect of the Dance of Death, apparent even in the medieval examples of the Dance, was eclipsed by the decorative concerns of the baroque artists.

In 1650 a handsome Dance of Death by the Zurich artists, Rudolf and Conrad Meyer, was published. Entitled Rudolf Meyers Todten-Dantz, the [39 The Old Man (not pictured); [41] series of sixty engravings was begun by Rudolf Meyer but he died before completing the work, and his younger brother Conrad finished and published it. The Meyers divided the persons in their Dance into three groups: the clerics, the worldly dignitaries and the middle class. The latter group is very large and with the two former groups comprises the most systematic and full portrait of society ever to appear in the Dance of Death. It introduces many new trades and professional figures, including the Meyer brothers and their father in the scene of painters and engravers. Compared to the Renaissance clarity of Holbein's woodcuts, the Meyers' engravings are baroque in detail and decorative qualities. In the mid-seventeenth century the Dance of Death is set in pastoral landscapes, classical ruins, and architecturally detailed interiors.

Not infrequently the Dance of Death appeared as illustrations to collections of sermons or other religious texts. Geistliche Todts-Gedancken with plates by Michael Rentz was a baroque version of this type similar to the editions of sermons of Giovanni Manni or Abraham a Sancta Clara. More richly illustrated than either of the latter, Rentz's engravings form the most monumental baroque Dance of Death with full-page depictions of the dramatic appearance of Death. The engravings contain memories of Holbein, but are highly embellished by many details in scenery and costumes. For both the Meyers and Rentz Holbein merely provided an artistic stepping-stone. As the pictorial qualities became of first importance, the satirical aspects of the theme were submerged and lost in the lavish profusion of landscape, lighting and architecture. Michael Rentz's engravings brought the baroque line of the Holbein tradition to a close. [42] By the last part of the eighteenth century artists' conceptions of the Dance of Death began to return to being a mirror of society with a strong dose of irony or satire in the depiction of men s encounters with death.


The first Dance of Death to take on a modern look was Freund Hein's Erscheinungen in Holbein's Manier with illustrations by J. R. Schellenberg. Although the title indicates the influence of Holbein, the illustrations show there is very little or none. Schellenberg's Dance of Death is a series of vignettes and predicaments, etched in a simple rococo style, depicting contemporary man faced with death. Some of the scenes show current events, such as the burning of Montgolfier's balloon or the invention of gunpowder, while others show a type of death, such as a suicide. In 1785 Schellenberg's Dance of Death made a decisive break with both the medieval and Renaissance traditions, signalling the form and content of the modern Dances of Death.

Whereas the baroque Dances of Death took place in a fantastic theater world, the Dances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries acquired their dramatic force by the depiction of the social and political realities of the time. The old system of society had died after the period of revolutions. In the modern era there was a society of potentially equal individuals in a lonely crowd. After the third quarter of the eighteenth century the Dances of Death changed accordingly. The hierarchical arrangement of society disappeared completely, as did the emphasis on man's integral participation in society. But while the form had changed, the Dance [43 The Victim of an Accident (not pictured); 45] of Death returned to being a vehicle for social and political comment as it had been for artists in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Thomas Rowlandson's English Dance of Death (1814-1816) is composed of a series of humorous or satirical situations which include death as the last laugh. In a modern expression of the inherent ambivalence in the theme of death, Rowlandson's treatment vacillates between the comic, the grotesque and the bathetic. His crowded scenes aim at the creation of a pregnant milieu in which every detail points to the undoing of the main character. While true to its medieval origins in its emphasis on social satire and social typology, Rowlandson's pictorial essay on the pitfalls of everyday life is a completely new and original interpretation of the Dance of Death.

Social criticism took on a more serious tone when the theme was used for comment on contemporary political events. The inspiration for Alfred Rethel's Auch ein Todtentanz published in 1849 came from the Revolution of 1848. His sympathies were anti-revolutionary. In the Todtentanz Death is portrayed as a seducer of the common people and the force behind the revolution. Liberty, equality and brotherhood are seen as deceitful platitudes which serve as the masks of death. Death's true identity is revealed when his promise is fulfilled. At the end of a battle in the final woodcut of the series all are free, equal and brothers--when they have died.

The nineteenth century was a period of great interest in the Dance of Death. Studies were made of the history of the various wall-paintings and editions of copies of the surviving examples were [46] published along with copies of the early editions of the Danse macabre and Holbein's woodcuts. Around the middle of the century several books on the history of the theme appeared. The most important were Francis Douce's dissertation published with reproductions of Holbein's woodcuts (1833), E. H. Langlois's Essai historique, philosophique et pittoresque sur les danses des morts (1852), Georges Kastner's Les Danses des morts (1852) and H. F. Massmann's bibliographical study Literatur der Totentanze (1840-1850).

During the nineteenth century a number of composers used the Dance of Death as a theme for their compositions. Like the earlier prints of Durer, Franz Schubert's songs, "Der Jungling und der Tod" and "Der Tod und das Madchen" (both dating from 1817), were based on a single scene from the series. The second movement of Schubert's 1826 string quartet in D minor also known as "Death and the Maiden" used the theme from his earlier song as the subject for variations. Slightly later in the century two other composers used the "Dies Irae" as the basis for music on the Dance of Death. In 1849 Franz Liszt wrote his Totentanz for piano and orchestra; and in 1874 Saint-SaŽns composed a symphonic poem entitled the Danse macabre [background music]. Originally written as a song based on a poem by Henri Cazalis, the Danse macabre returns to the medieval superstition of Death as a fiddler who comes to the graveyard at midnight to raise the dead and lead them in a night-long dance. Mussorgsky wrote his song cycle Songs and Dances of Death in 1875 and 1877. In settings of poems by Golenishchev-Kutuzov, the personification of Death is seen as an evil figure who preys on his spiritually or physically weak victims. Just after the turn of the century Alexander Glazunov revived the earliest form of the Dance of Death. In a scherzo which was part of his 1903 suite, [47 The Rich Man (not pictured); 49] From the Middle Ages, he depicted the performance of the Dance as a mystery play.

Twentieth-century artists used the theme for personal statements on death. Social commentary and criticism were major elements in their illustrations which showed the influence of current events such as the two World Wars. The force of their commentary was often borne by the visual impact of the pictures alone; most had not text, being a series of plates, sometimes with brief captions for each plate, sometimes with only a title for the book.

Three Dances of Death were published shortly after the close of World War I: Alfred Kubin's Blatter mit dem Tod (1918); Hermann-Paul's Danse macabre (1919); and Alfred Zacharias's Tod und Teufel (1922). All show death's passage through the modern world but the meaning of individual scenes is often far from clear. Men are depicted as isolated, alienated creatures without the support of a cohesive society or a religious or moral purpose to their lives. The technique of the illustrations is intentionally crude, recalling the primitive woodcuts of the fifteenth-century Dances of Death. In the roughness of the woodcuts and Kubin's scratchy drawings one experiences the disorder and lack of purpose which these artists felt characterized modern society.

After World War II two more Dances of Death appeared. In 1947 Kubin's second Dance of Death, Ein neuer Totentanz was published. Although it was influenced by the war, its illustrations are not only of war, but also of real and imagined scenes of various kinds of death. In a brief bow to tradition Kubin includes himself in an autobiographical scene entitled "Der Tod holt der Zeichner."

[50] Frans Masereel's Danse macabre (1941; 1946) was directly inspired by the Second World War. A series of war scenes, it shows man no longer as death's victim but as an instrument of death. Carved out of the thick, heavy strokes of the woodcut, Death is behind the holocaust portrayed as a grinning, demonic figure. Masereel's scenes stress the horrors and violence of war, showing man's helplessness and submission in the face of the forces of death. In one woodcut even Death stands back looking in amazement at the destruction he has caused.

The Totentanz von Basel was done in 1966 by HAP Grieshaber, a graphic artist working in Basel. This most recent Dance of Death has its roots in one of the oldest Dances. Grieshaber used the verses from the wall-paintings in Basel and has said that his inspiration for his work came from the seventeenth-century engravings of Matthaeus Merian.

Although he took the persons from the medieval Dance, Grieshaber made a radical departure from the traditional iconography. In style he is influenced by his artistic predecessors, the German Expressionists; in technique he is intentionally crude, letting the medium of the woodcut dictate the rough shapes and outlines of the forms which are composed of abstract shapes. All of the scenes are dominated by an active line which lends a frantic note to Death's intrusion, evoking feelings of horror and trembling by the use of shimmering colors. Line, color and form combine to give this Dance of Death an awkward quaking effect like the rattling of old bones.

Grieshaber's Dance of Death brings the tradition full circle, reaching back to the Middle Ages [51] for its basic iconography and inspiration, while up-dating the theme by its abstract style and the inclusion of details which mirror modern society. The success of Grieshaber's illustrations lies in his respect for the spirit of the Dance of Death which has survived intact almost five hundred years after its first appearance in print.

Selected Bibliography

  • Cosacchi, Stephan. Makabertanz. Meisenheim an Glan, 1965.
  • Douce, Francis. Holbein's Dance of Death. London, 1858.
  • Massmann, H. F. Literatur der Totentanze. Reprint edition: Hildesheim, 1963.
  • Minns, Susan. The Dance of Death from the XIIth to the XXth century...The Notable Collection of Miss Susan Minns. Greenwich, Conn., 1922.
  • Rosenfeld, Hellmut. Der mittelalterliche Totentanz. Minster, 1954.
  • Schreiber, W. L. "Die Totentanze," Zeitschrift fur Bucherfreunde, 2 (1898-99), 291-304 and 321-42.
  • Sears, George E. A Collection of Works Illustrative of the Dance of Death. New York, 1889.
  • Warthin, A. S. The Physician of the Dance of Death. New York, 1931.

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Created: Monday, October 3, 2005; Updated: Monday, June 05, 2017  
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