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.  

Comments most Welcome via the tiny word below.  

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