Danse Macabre

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Dance of Death, also variously called Danse Macabre (French), Dansa de la Mort (Catalan), Danza Macabra (Italian and Spanish), Dança da Morte (Portuguese), Totentanz (German), Dodendans (Dutch), is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the Dance of Death unites all. The Danse Macabre consists of the dead or personified Death summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child, and labourer. They were produced to remind people of the fragility of their lives and how vain were the glories of earthly life.[1] Its origins are postulated from illustrated sermon texts; the earliest recorded visual scheme was a now lost mural in the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris dating from 1424-25.

Contents

Paintings

The earliest recorded visual example is from the cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris (1424–25). There were also painted schemes in Basel (the earliest dating from c.1440); a series of paintings on canvas by Bernt Notke, in Lübeck (1463); and woodcuts designed in the early 1520s by Hans Holbein the Younger and executed by Hans Lützelburger (published 1538).

The deathly horrors of the 14th century—such as recurring famines; the Hundred Years' War in France; and, most of all, the Black Death—were culturally assimilated throughout Europe. The omnipresent possibility of sudden and painful death increased the religious desire for penitence, but it also evoked a hysterical desire for amusement while still possible; a last dance as cold comfort. The danse macabre combines both desires: in many ways similar to the mediaeval mystery plays, the dance-with-death allegory was originally a didactic dialogue poem to remind people of the inevitability of death and to advise them strongly to be prepared at all times for death (see memento mori and Ars moriendi).

Short verse dialogues between Death and each of its victims, which could have been performed as plays, can be found in the direct aftermath of the Black Death in Germany (where it was known as the Totentanz, and in Spain as la Danza de la Muerte). The French term danse macabre may derive from the Latin Chorea Machabæorum, literally "dance of the Maccabees."[citation needed] 2 Maccabees, a deuterocanonical book of the Bible in which the grim martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons is described, was a well-known mediaeval subject. It is possible that the Maccabean Martyrs were commemorated in some early French plays or that people just associated the book’s vivid descriptions of the martyrdom with the interaction between Death and its prey. An alternative explanation is that the term entered France via Spain, the Arabic word 'maqabir' (cemetery) being the root of the word. Both the dialogues and the evolving paintings were ostensive penitential lessons that even illiterate people (who were the overwhelming majority) could understand.

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