22.7.06

Danse macabre iconography

Although the origins of the danse macabre, or Dance of Death, are still obscure, probably the most famous version was the (now lost) mural of 1424-25 with accompanying verses in the churchyard of the Franciscan convent Aux SS. Innocents in Paris. The scheme showed Death engaged in a dialogue with people from all ranks of society as he invites each to his dance. Around 1430, the poet John Lydgate produced a Middle-English 'translation', which came to be included in a lost scheme at Old St Paul's Cathedral, London. The theme became extremely popular across Europe, especially when printed editions appeared; best known is probably the series of prints by Hans Holbein the Younger (published in 1538), but Thomas Rowlandson produced a series of Dance of Death prints as late as the mid-1810s. There are regional variations: Death is usually armed with a scythe, spade, spear or dart in French and English versions, whereas German schemes tend to emphasize the musical aspect of the Dance.

The popularity of the danse macabre can also be observed in tomb iconography from the later fifteenth century on. The skeletal figure of Death with his dart is sometimes just a symbol of mortality (memento mori) in the overall composition, as at Doulting and Wellington, but one also finds Death threatening or attacking the commemorated person, exemplified by the monuments at Nieuwkapelle, Lowestoft, Hunsdon and Shepton Mallet. Unusual and early is the brass of John Rudyng at Biggleswade, which features a dialogue in Latin between Death and the spectator with a reminder that king, duke, prince and priest all must suffer this doom - a clear reference to the danse macabre. The skeleton on the incised slab at Wijk may represent the deceased, yet it could equally be Death himself with his dart, wearing a biretta in mockery of the dead clergyman.

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