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
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