The Danse Macabre, also known as the Dance of Death, is a late Medieval genre of art in which death is depicted as a skeletal figure (or figures) dragging people to their demise. The theme in the artworks is that no one is immune to death, and death eventually comes for us all, whether king, pope, bride or beggar. It was used as a memento mori to remind audiences of the ephemerality of their lives and the eventual pointlessness of their worldly pursuits.
The middle ages were not a pleasant time. People lived alongside war, famine and plague (The Black Death). The Black Death was a frightening fast-moving disease, with 80% of infected dying within eight days. It first decimated Europe in the 14th century, killing between 75-200 million in Euroasia.
Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And so they died. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices … great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night … And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug … And I, Agnolo di Tura … buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.Agnolo di Tura (~1348)
The plague continued to return throughout the 14th to 17th centuries. Medieval and Renaissance audiences knew that death could come knocking at any moment, and often did. This led to a strong religious interest in penance in order to be deemed heaven-worthy, but conversely, the possibility that life could end momentarily also increased the public interest in festivities and amusement as well. The Dance of Death combined these ideas, and functioned as a dark comedic performance enacted in peasant villages and royal courts, with participants playing the roles of various members of society.
Many paintings and frescoes were produced in the genre, but perhaps the most beautiful and intriguing images come from Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death (1523-26). Holbien drew the images, but the woodcuts themselves were made by Hans Lützelburger, and have been described as the finest woodcuts ever produced.
You may have noticed that in the majority of the illustrations shown here, the artist has hidden hour glasses to symbolize that time has run out.
Forty-one woodcuts were produced for the first edition of the book Danse Macabre, published in 1538. The book’s success is obvious in the fact that eleven editions existed by 1562, and as many as a hundred unauthorized editions were produced throughout the 16th century. Later versions contained an additional ten illustrations.
Do you have a favorite image? We here at TofuJoe enjoyed ‘The Shopkeeper or Peddler’ because it reminds us of late 80s – early 90s PC adventure games (King’s Quest, Quest for Glory, etc.) where you carried a gigantic inventory around with you. The skeletal figure behind the shopkeeper’s pack is holding what appears to be a musical instrument skyward, likely a tromba marina, which was popular at the time.
We’ve been converting the images into infinitely scalable vectors. A collection of 16 images is complete!