The Dance of Death Artwork’s Journey Through Centuries

7 min


The Middle Ages, or Medieval Europe or the Renaissance period saw a great deal of path-breaking reformation in Art, poetry and books. The 15th century witnessed a peculiar style in art and painting, The Danse Macabre or the Dance of Death. The artist found a platform to showcase the death as ‘The Ultimate’. A myriad of the fine depiction of showing death as inescapable and uniformity is the core theme of these works. The artists tried to communicate that mortality is unpredictable and no one can escape death, whether from any walks of life. Most of the medieval works were sadly destroyed but quite a number of them are alive in books and woodcut illustrations.

The Blanton Museum Of Art, Texas, recently demonstrated the Dance of Death works on paper, describing what each painting represented and how it reformed through centuries. The organiser, Elizabeth Welsh says, ‘Dance of Death wasn’t just a generalised response to ceasing the mortality but to a great extent an attempt by medieval Christians for social unification through the inevitability of death”.  One of the earliest known dance of death concept was found in Cimetiere des Innocents (cemetery of Innocents) series in Paris, which was destroyed in the 17th century but an imitation could be seen in form of woodcuts.

The 14th-15th Centurywitnessed the beginning of this fascinating concept. This era saw Cholera epidemic and Hundred years war, which formed this obsession to originate among the artists. Welsh adds,” the concept of Transit originated during the era”. Transit, a Cadaver tomb, is a person shown in the decomposing state. Representations from the every class of people could be seen like, the clergy, emperor, the Pope, commoner, Dukes, minister etc. paired with the dead shown as rotting skeletons with skin hanging out in a state of decomposing. The decomposed skeletons are parading the people towards grave and are often seen carrying musical instruments, triggering to mock the living. Illustrations underneath the paintings could also be found with sarcastic remarks from the Bible emphasising to the living that one cannot escape death and it does not care about class, sex or age. A very well preserved proof of Dance of Death work is found in the St Mary church at Skrilinah, Beram, in Istria, painted in 1474 illustrated as “The Master of Dance of Death”.

The 16th -18th century saw a widespread destruction of this art. But, it also saw a great deal of imitation in the form of Woodcuts, lithographs or engravings to preserve this art. The depictions of Michael Wolgemut’s woodcut work, “Imago Mortis”, where four skeletons could be seen frolicking over a grave, while the corpses waves to them, clearly indicate the impartiality of death. The illustrations of Holy Innocence cemetery is also found to have imitated on woodcut art glorifying death and reminding people of the fragility of the lives. The dance of death was finely exemplified in the form of poetry, music and a prolific collection of these arts in a book.

The personification of Death was the main theme line of this art but the 19th century used Death more as a character to give a social or political message. Alfred Rethel’s painted this amazing depiction called “Death as a Strangler” which is based on the emergence of Cholera. The skeleton robes a monk’s attire swaggering on the rhythm of music while corpses lay behind as cholera struck them. Artists highlighted the social message with such illustrations implying that death waits for them all.

Death can appear disrupting the pleasures of life. Another artistic depiction of this message could be seen in the lithographic print recreated from the 15th Century painting wherein a man holds the cadaver woman in his arms while she decomposes. The depictions of a dance of death can also be seen as Zombies prowl in film and television in today’s art. Death over the years has been a clear portrayal of ultimate strength through artistic expressions. A transition from traditional to religious portrayals of this art can be clearly made out of them.

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