The robed, skeletal figure of Death interacting with the living has become an iconic image in contemporary culture, adorning Tarot cards, album covers and T-shirts; appearing in film, books and artistic prints. Our fascination with and fear of mortality has existed since humans first walked upon the earth. It wasn't until the early 1500s, however, that the most famous imagery of Death began to proliferate across Europe, due in large part to the catastrophe of the bubonic plague less than two hundred years earlier. In this paper we will explore the history of the Dance of Death, its influence on medieval society and art, and the ways in which it has inspired artists throughout the centuries.The Dance of Death is perhaps better known by the French phrase danse macabre. The first known appearance of the word macabre dates back to the 14th centurythat of the Black Deathin a poem by Jean Le Fevre, Je fis de Macabre la danse. Yet the word's etymology, according to some sources, stems from the Maccabees, the Christian martyrs from whom the Purgatorial prayer of intercession originated
[...] The Dance of Death became an “illustrated sermon” telling the faithful to repent for their sins before it was too late (Mackenbach, 1286). The images of corpses and skeletons, along with harsh texts, were intentionally used to ensure that the spiritual message of the Church would be delivered to those who saw them (1292). This, of course, was a familiar and often successful tactic of the Church to enforce its teachings, by co-opting existing folklore and reshaping it to suit more spiritual purposes. [...]
[...] Or perhaps a worldwide disaster born of the growing climate crisis? In any case, the danse macabre whispers to us from across the ages, beckoning us to heed its warning. In the end there is no bargaining with death, no escape from the robed figure waiting to swing his scythe into the unwitting human harvest once more. Remember, thou too shall die. WORKS CITED Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. Helen Weaver, trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc Ariès, Philippe. [...]
[...] There he saw Orcagna's Triumph of Death” frescoes, and eleven years later completed his contribution to the Dance of Death canon (Searle, 86). Saint-Saens, on the other hand, was inspired by the poetry of Henri Cazalis, whose work described an ancient French superstition in which, at midnight on Halloween, a fiddle-playing Death summoned the deceased, who danced for him until dawn before returning to their graves for another year. The motif of dancing corpses, once so common that even the Church had used it as an effective marketing campaign, offended Victorian sensibilities; it is said that the composer's own mother fainted at the first performance (“Haunting”). [...]
[...] The Dance of Death was part of a large group of death themes, including illustrations on funeral monuments, frescoes of the Triumph of Death, manuals on dying properly (the artes morendi) and a host of others (Mackenbach, 1285), collectively known as the macabre. It was articulated as drama in its earliest form, then as poetry, through the visual arts, and finally even in music (Despelder and Strickland, 61). The transi, or half-decomposed corpse, was found as early as 1320 on the church walls in Assisi, as well as on tombs (Hour, 113). [...]
[...] Between the years of 1523 and 1526 Hans Holbein the Younger completed a series of drawings about the Dance of Death, which featured the skeletal figure of Death surprising people in the midst of their daily routine (Despelder and Strickland, 621). Released in 1538 with text by Jean de Vauzèlles, the woodcuts represent a shift toward Protestantism and its disdain for the spectacle of the Catholic Church. The faithful Christian found death neither mysterious nor frightening, and thus the figure of Death was no longer a rotting corpse but a simple skeleton, with biblical quotations instructing the viewer on how to live rather than how one should die (Ward, Perhaps this is why they have become some of the most famous depictions of the danse macabre in the world, even to the point of being featured on modern-day album covers. [...]
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