The Dance of Death (a brief history of…)

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The Dance of Death, in St.Mary’s, Beram, Croatia.

Imagery of the “Dance of Death” reputedly 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. One being Michael Wolgemut’s The Dance of Death (1493) as seen in the image below (also featured on Sean Munger’s Blog) and Vincent de Kastav’s 1474 masterpiece that can be found in the small church of St. Mary in Beram, Croatia.  Many other amazing ‘dance of death’  artworks are found painted on the outside walls of cloisters, of family vaults, of ossuaries or inside some churches.

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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 that disease and death was everyone’s companion. It was a time of horrible epidemics and mortality was low. One of the biggest killers was the plague of 1348, where some two-thirds of Europe’s population was wiped out. 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 dance (a farandole) in which death and its victims join hands and wind in and out in a chain. The Skeletons depicted in the painting usually don’t wear shrouds and are found naked and often seen playing music. ‘Death’ usually talks to the dancers (victims) in a threatening and accusing tone, with the dancers arguing, begging and crying out to death to be merciful. But in the end it is death who decides their fate, with no prejudice or care of what standing in life they come from, sex or age. In the Beram dance of death (on the far left section of the fresco pictured below) there is a merchant who is trying to bride death by pointing to the large amount of money he has in his sack. His efforts are in vain, as death will never spare one’s life in exchange for mere riches.

In the end, it could be said that as death decides your fate, he will charm you with his music and lead you on a merry dance of death !

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The merchant trying to bribe death with his sack of coins.

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St.Mary’s Church, Beram, Croatia.

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Time has damaged the ‘Dance of Death’ frescoes of St. Mary, some of the characters are today scarcely distinguishable, and the lower section of the fresco is in some parts been destroyed. Still, it is an amazing representation of death and what awaits us?



Categories: A brief history of..., Art History, Mythology

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