Pugliaindifesa History A Brief History of the Dance of Death.

A Brief History of the Dance of Death.

A Brief History of the Dance of Death.

On the outer walls of monasteries, family crypts, ossuaries or inside some churches and even on medieval bridges, many amazing works of art depicting images have been found.Dance of Death’. By all accounts dance of Death first appeared in the cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris around 1424-25. Unfortunately, we cannot see this fresco today because it was destroyed in 1669. The back wall of the arcade, on which the fresco was painted, under the crypt on the south side of the cemetery, was demolished to make way for a narrow road. behind it to be extended. Interestingly, although the walls have long been destroyed, the paintings were reproduced by a Parisian engraver named Guyot (or Guy) Marchand in 1485.

Dance of Death, Maid and Housekeeper, reproduction of the Dance of Death from the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris, by Guyot Marchand, 1485.
The Spreuer Bridge in Lucerne, 13th century, Switzerland, with a gabled roof, contains a series of works of art that form the Dance of Death cycle.

Despite the terrible loss of the Dance of Death in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris, we still have many other fascinating paintings and portraits of the dance of death, reflecting the mood of the artists and their unique ideas about death of that period. Here below, Michael Wohlgemuth Dance of Death (1493) from the Nuremberg Chronicles, as well as Renaissance woodcuts by the German artist Hans Holbein (1497–1543). Holbein created woodcuts between 1523 and 1525 while living in the Swiss city of Basel. In his series of live scenes, Death encroaches on the lives of thirty-four people from different walks of European society – from the emperor to the nobleman and the plowman.

Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemuth from the Nuremberg Chronicle.
Woodcut by Hans Holbein “Dance of Death” (“Lawyer”, “Lady”, “Nobleman”), ca. 1523–1525

It is probably interesting to note that the dancing mania or dancing plague called choreomania is often attributed to the Dance of Death. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, people literally danced to the point of exhaustion. It was a social phenomenon (about which we still know little) that forced the authorities to organize dance rituals in some cities. The most famous ritual we know of took place in Strasbourg, France in 1518, when musicians were known to be brought in to let people dance until they were hurt or exhausted.

The Dance at Molenbeek by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564–1638) depicts pilgrims dancing in the church at Molenbeek.

The cultural impact of the “Dance of Death” is not limited solely to the outer walls of the monasteries or the inner churches. Notable examples exist in the form of works of art. It is said that one of the most valuable medieval works of art in Estonia is the Dance of Death by Bernt Notke. Only part of the original 30m oil painting still exists and is on display at the medieval St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn, Estonia. While at the Ritterscher Palace in Lucerne, Switzerland, art enthusiasts should also see the stunning collection of Jakob von Wiel’s Dance of Death cycle (c. 1610–1615), with some 23 scenes illuminating various social classes facing death. .

Fragment of a 25-foot fragment of the “Dance of Death” depicting Death and the Empress, St. Nicholas Church, Tallinn, Estonia, 15th century.
The Dance of Death depicting the Queen is one of a series of paintings by Jakob von Wiel found in the Ritterscher Palace in Lucerne, circa 1610-1615.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, several churches in France and throughout Europe began commissioning wall paintings depicting the Dance of Death. The three best examples are probably the 12th-century Saint-Germain church in the village of La Ferté-Luppierre, near Auxerre in Yonne, France, the small church of St. Mary in Beram, Croatia, and the church of the Holy Trinity in Hrastovlje. , Slovenia.

Interior of Saint-Germain church, La Ferté-Luppierre, France.

In the church of St. Germanus, on the high walls, the incredible fresco “Dance of Death” from the late 15th century attracts the attention of locals and pilgrims from all over the world. The condition of this magnificent fresco is truly noteworthy: 25 meters long, it depicts 42 characters representing the entire social hierarchy of that time in procession with death.

This small fragment of the fresco “Dance of Death” of the Church of Saint-Germain, Ferté-Luppierre, shows a procession consisting of couples of the living, who are accompanied by the dead. There are 19 pairs in total.

In Croatia, Vincent de Castava’s 1474 masterpiece from a small church Holy Mary Berama is also breathtaking. Unfortunately time has damaged most ‘Dance of Death’ frescoes of St. Mary, where some characters are barely visible, and the lower part of the fresco is destroyed in some places. However, it is an amazing representation of a death that seems to take pleasure in playing its music while leading its victims in a merry dance of death.

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Above the front door in the interior of the Church of St. Mary is a fragment of the “Dance of Death” by the artist Vincent de Castava, 1474.

In neighboring Slovenia, richly colored frescoes inside stone walls Church of the Holy Trinity date back to 1490. The rare frescoes were rediscovered only in 1949 and carefully restored after plastering and whitewashing. It features eleven characters from all walks of life, led by an equal number of skeletons moving forward in a procession.

Detail from the Dance of Death from Hrastovlje, Slovenia, depicting from left to right the Queen, King and Bishop.

One may ask why the fascination with art and death? Simply put, it was a way to show people that “Regardless of a person’s position in life, the Dance of Death unites everyone.” In particular, in the Middle Ages, illness and death were on the threshold of almost everyone. It was a time of terrible epidemics, when mortality was especially low. One of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages was the plague of 1348, when about two-thirds of the population of Europe was wiped out. With this, death and disease began to play in the minds of people, and the perception of death as the Grim Reaper scything people’s lives, perhaps, was born during this period?

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Dance of death, Anonymous, German, 16th century.

Dance of Death in most paintings it takes the form of a living farandole, in which death and its victims are usually depicted holding hands, writhing in chains. The most common depiction of this mesmerizing dance of death depicts naked skeletons merrily playing music, while “Death” almost always has to deal with the pitiful appearance of its victims, begging and crying out for the mercy of death. Interestingly, sometimes his victims go to great lengths to cheat death. For example, in the Beram fresco shown below, the merchant strategically points out the large amount of money he keeps in his bag in an attempt to bribe death. His efforts, of course, are in vain, since “Death” is incorruptible. Death will never bargain to spare a person’s life in exchange for earthly riches. And so, regardless of gender, age, or concern for where one comes from in life, “Death” is the final judge.

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The merchant points to the large amount of money he keeps in his bag in an attempt to bribe death. Fragment of the fresco “Dance of Death” by Vincent de Castava of St. Mary, Beram, Croatia, 1474
Note: This selected article was originally published in 2013. It has been updated and moved to the front pages to further highlight the original content of this site.
Photo credit: The title image is Dancing with Death by Hugo Simberg, 1899. All images are in the public domain, except for the interior of Saint-Germain, Ferté-Luppierre (with pews). Flickr user Patrick. It is used under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Dance of Death from St. Mary’s Church in Berama, Croatia is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

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