Dances of Death

St. Mary’s Church, Lübeck, Germany, 1463

Death is everywhere.  Does not common sense and experience teach this?

St. Mary’s Church, Berlin, c. 1485

So why should we wish to consider the fact over and over in our art, even in our entertainment?

St. Mary’s Church, Beram, Croatia, 1474

Why should all our festivals and carnivals feature morality plays in which death leads us away to our respective fates?

Jesuit College, Lucern, Switzerland

Why should the Dance of Death have become so popular in art that no artist feels his career complete until he has painted or engraved one?

Merchant, Hans Holbein Dance of Death, 1538

It is the plague, some say. Since the plague, Europe is obsessed with Death.

Cemetery of the Innocents, Paris, c. 1424

But if we are, as a common mind, obsessed with Death, why should our art not provide an escape rather than a study of the subject?

Church of Nørre Alslev, Falster Island, Denmark, late 1400s

Perhaps, it is more like a builder who must walk the high rafters of the new granary or climb to the heights of the cathedral. How can he master his fear?

Anonymous–early 16th century

“You get used to it,” one fellow told me. “You just go as high as you dare, and, when you’re comfortable there, you go higher.”

Clusone, Italy

Perhaps this is why we look so much at death, study death, handle death in our imaginations. Perhaps go so far as to mock Death. That we might, by these safe encounters, be less afraid.

Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, 1517, Berne

I view a painting of Death. And then I go home and eat my lunch, and so, I have, once more, walked the high beam without incident. And I am a little less afraid.

St Nicolas’ Church, Tallinn, Estonia, late 1400s

Perhaps, a very modern thinker might say: Macabre. Weird. Eerie.

Trinity Church, Hrastovlje, Slovenia, 1490

But, Gentle Reader, have you never read a scary book or viewed a frightening image purely for pleasure? Is there not a writer of great popularity known as Steven King?

Artist unknown, probably printed by Heinrich Knoblochtzer, Heidelberg, late 1400s

Could the popularity of all things terrifying be motivated by the same impulses that make our Dances of Death popular?

Chapelle Kermaria, France, 15th century

Just another way to walk on the highest rafter?

Local scene, yesterday


Capito thanks that most excellent site: Death in Art for most of these images.  There the Reader can find information on the location and history of each Dance of Death and a discussion of the genre.  

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Bruchsal–Part 1

December 1512

Like most choices, my decision to leave the university and move to Bruchsal to work for the Bishop has not resulted in a perfect situation, though it is nice to eat with the sons of nobility and to wear robes equal to the ones Zasius provides Fabri.

But my position entails far more than I expected.  The Bishop sends me on frequent errands, (hence, the lateness of this post), and the duties are beyond the scope of my abilities.  The Bishop believes that, since I studied briefly under Zasius, I should be able to answer legal questions.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, and I am frequently dispatching a courier on a fast horse to appeal to Fabri for advice.  And, too, I hate litigation and conflicts, and so, do not enter into argumentation with the passion it requires.

Then, there are the endless chapter meetings in which the daily business of the foundation is discussed.  I care not what arrangements should be made for the upcoming feast or at what hour this or that should occur.  But my position requires me to attend.  So there I sit, as stuck as a pig on a spit, but at least the pig has a purpose.

The people who attend our services are woefully ignorant and superstitious, particularly with regard to ghosts, demons, witches, and saints.  This results from several sources.  The clergy are poorly trained and often superstitious themselves, and they encourage the superstitions of the people in order to keep the common herd content and keep everything in stat quo.  While the people are not to blame that they were raised with superstitions, they cling to them tenaciously, for is it not much easier to simply follow a superstitious formula than to undergo a transformation of heart?

So, you may have surmised from all this, Gentle Reader, that I find myself at odds with several of the clergy.  They accuse me of stirring up the populace, for some find my lessons refreshing and authentic, but some cling to their old thinking, and so the congregation is divided.  How I shocked them last Sunday when I answered that, no, the sight of an icon does not protect one from sudden death for the rest of the day.  Does not experience itself teach this?

Hubmaier writes that discussion among the people is always to be desired, as it opens minds.  But truly, I feel that I am having little positive effect.

I am besieged by a mass of trivial duties, and one would surmise that I am too busy to think.  But I do think.  In my solitude, I find myself revisiting troubling questions that go all the way back to my childhood and my father’s affinity for John Wycliffe.

Is Christ really Present in the Eucharist?  I don’t know.  And yet, in my position, I declare my belief in that doctrine every time I say Mass.

I have no one with whom to share these concerns—dangerous as they are.  Oh how I miss Hubmaier and Zell and the lively discussions we had over our ale at the Hog’s Snout.  How I miss Fabri’s unwavering logic.  And the innocent wisdom of the young monk Michael.

Bruchsal is an intellectual desert, and there are few here who can have—or who wish to have—an intelligent discussion about humanistic studies, languages, poetry, ethics, or anything else.  Again, preserve the status quo.  So, when I have a free moment, I seem to gravitate to solitary places where I spend the time brooding.

The one bright spot in the last several months was the recent visit of Conradus Pellicanus.  Although a Franciscan, Conradus leads all Germany in the study of Hebrew, though when he began to study, he had no grammar and no teacher.  But he taught himself the letters, and then Reuchlin lent him the grammar of Moses Kimhi, for Reuchlin is convinced that if one wishes to find the truth in Hebrew, one must follow the grammatical and exegetical tradition of the medieval rabbis.

In 1501, Conradus published the first Hebrew grammar in any European language, which was most helpful to Reuchlin when he later began to publish his works.  (Reuchlin’s Augenspiegel has been suppressed, Conradus told me, thanks to the efforts of that idiot, Pfefferkorn.  Let them try to take my copy.)

Conradus is a model of how a man can educate himself in any subject if he only be willing to study and make the effort to do all that he can.  He tells me that in Basel, there is a converted Jew from Spain living with the Amerbachs and teaching Hebrew.  I have asked the Bishop for permission to make the trip to Basel to meet this Jew.

Many are studying the New Testament in Greek, but few can read the Old Testament in its original language or understand the tradition from which it came.  This is due to a dearth of study material and to the suspicion and hatred of anything Jewish.  A great tragedy.

Jewish scholars wearing pointed hats are suckled by their wetnurse, the Devil’s pig. Earliest extant anti-Semetic broadside. 1475

But I, Capito, find Hebrew fascinating, both for its own knowledge and for the light that it throws on the Bible.  If I could pursue Hebrew studies, my time here in Bruchsal might not seem so devoid of purpose.  So, I go to Basel to meet this Jew.  And we shall see what will be.

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