Many amazing works of art have been found painted on the outside walls of cloisters, of family vaults, of ossuaries or inside some churches depicting the imagery of the ‘Dance of Death’. By all accounts, the Dance of Death first appeared in the cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris around 1424-25. Unfortunately, we are unable to see this mural today because it was destroyed in 1669. The back wall of the arcade, which the mural was painted on, below the charnel house on the south side of the cemetery, was demolished to allow a narrow road behind it to be widened. Despite its lose we have many other fascinating portraits of the dance of death still in existence that reflect the mood of artists and their unique representations of death from that period.
Two interesting examples are shown here below, Michael Wolgemut’s The Dance of Death (1493) from the Nuremberg Chronicle and of particular interest to me, Vincent de Kastav’s 1474 masterpiece, from the small church of St. Mary in Beram, Croatia. Time has unfortunately damaged much of the ‘Dance of Death’ frescoes of St. Mary, where some of the characters are scarcely distinguishable, and the lower section of the fresco is in some parts been destroyed. Still, it is an amazing representation of death, who seems to take pleasure playing his music, while leading his victims on a merry dance of death.
The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut from the Nuremberg Chronicle.
One might ask why the fascination with art and death? Quite simply, it was a way of showing people that “no matter one’s station in life , the Dance of Death unites all.” It was during the Middle Ages in particular that disease and death was on almost everyone’s doorstep. It was a time of horrible epidemics, where mortality was especially low. One of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages was the plague of 1348, where some two-thirds of Europe’s population was wiped out. With this death and disease began to play on people’s mind and the perception of death, as the Grim Reaper that scythes people’s lives, was arguably born during that period?
The Dance of Death in most paintings takes the form of a lively farandole, in which death and its victims are usually seen holding hands, winding in and out in a chain. The most common depiction of this fascinating dance of death shows bare Skeletons merrily playing music, while ‘Death’ is almost always left to deal with the sorry sight of his victims begging and crying out for death to be merciful. Interestingly, sometimes his victims will go to any length to cheat death. For instance, in the Beram fresco seen here below, a merchant is strategically pointing to the large amount of money he has in his sack in an attempt to bribe death. His efforts of course are in vain, as ‘Death’ is incorruptible. Death will never bargain to spare an individuals life in exchange for mortal riches. And so with no prejudice of sex, age or care of what standing in life one came from, ‘Death’ is the ultimate adjudicator.