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The Dance of Death

Bruce H. Barnett, J.D., LL.M. (Taxation)
Palm Beach County, Florida

“The Dance of Death” arouses everyone’s curiosity. The name alone is responsible for the initial interest, and widespread use in many artistic arenas confirms its magnetism. But what exactly is the Dance of Death? From where does it come, what does it mean and why is it important? These are the principal questions addressed below.

The Dance of Death can be described as a unique and recognizable reminder that life is brief, and nobody is granted immortality. The alliterative and dramatic name has captured imaginations for centuries and is found in many media. Its heart, however, lies in illustrated books, where the classic Dance of Death format shows people from all ranks of society, beginning with the highest and progressing to the lowest, serially encountering death, represented by a skeleton. While many artists have created their own version of the Dance of Death, the most famous, most influential and greatest was the 16th century interpretation by Hans Holbein, the Younger.

Death, of course, has accompanied man from the days of Adam and Eve and never has been far from our thoughts. Reportedly, the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians used images similar to those found in the Dance of Death. Herodotus, the 5th century BCE Greek who often is called the “father of history,” wrote about the Egyptian practice of placing a small image of a mummy upon the banquet-hall tables as a reminder of the brief and uncertain duration of human life. Herodotus also described the Greeks adopting a similar symbol for the same purpose and their practice of passing a small model of an embalmed body to the guests at banquets, each in turn repeating the formula, “eat, drink, and be merry, for when ye are dead ye will be like this.” The Bible in chapter 22 of the Book of Isaiah contains the similar and more familiar admonition to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.” 

Memento mori is a similar well known phrase that means “remember you will die.” It is believed to have originated in ancient Rome as a reminder to military heroes of the importance of remaining humble, since their days of reckoning would not be far off. Yet another expression reflecting the same concept but which is even better known is carpe diem, which translates as “seize the day.” 

Our natural focus upon death has been heavily reinforced by religion, particularly with its belief in an after-life. Christian theology, for example, embraces not only a belief in the after-life but in a variety of after-life outcomes that depend upon faith and behavior. A memorable example comes from the life of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century mathematical genius. Pascal’s mathematical abilities were widely acknowledged and celebrated early in his life, and over time, he was recognized as one of Europe’s elite mathematicians. While at the zenith of his mathematical success, Pascal abruptly abandoned mathematics to devote his life to religion. That metamorphosis stemmed from studies in the science of probability which convinced him that faith in God maximized his chances of a comfortable eternal after-life. His analysis became known as “Pascal’s Wager” and is famous to this day. 

The origins of The Dance of Death are murky, and historical uncertainties abound. Explanations from experts through the centuries reveal significant and substantial contradictions. One point that seems to be generally agreed, however, is that religion played a role in its development. Some, for example, believe that the roots of the Dance of Death lie in an ancient pageant or religious farce created by the clergy probably for amusement and possibly as a reminder of the connection between morality and mortality. In this event, people assumed the role of members of every rank in society and would systematically disappear one by one to show that nobody is exempt from death.

Over time, these performances evolved into simple plays and migrated into painting. One of the earliest paintings reportedly appeared in 1312 on the walls of the Klingenthal Monastery in Basle, Switzerland. Impressions of that painting can be found in a French work that was issued towards the end of the 19th century with 42 illustrations reproducing 40 watercolors executed between 1766 and 1768 by the artist Emmanuel Buchel from the designs on the walls of the Klingenthal Monastery. Berthier, R. P. J.[oachim, Joseph]. La Plus Ancienne Danse Macabre au Klingenthal, a Bale. Paris: P. Lethielleux, [1897]. The renditions are among the earliest interpretations of how Death eventually embraces every man and woman from every station in life. 

Another potentially influential source for the Dance of Death dates back to the year 1250 in the form of a French legend known as “le dit des trois morts et des trois vifs” that translates roughly into “the word of the three dead and three living.” In this legend, which generally is attributed to the Egyptian ascetic St. Macarius, three kings unexpectedly encounter and converse with three skeletons. It became extremely popular among the masses, who in a manner at once understandable and yet bizarre, favored the skeletons, since death was the great leveler of a society whose social demarcations were clear and unyielding. Versions emigrated to Germany and England, and, in time, these evolved with the original three kings being replaced by other high ranking members of society such as queens and noblemen. In a further development, death is represented by a female skeleton brandishing a scythe that is used to strike down members from all ranks of society beginning with popes, emperors and kings. With these modifications, the original legend of three kings encountering three skeletons mutated into the classic Dance of Death format. 

Yet another apparent direct ancestor of the Dance of Death is a poem called Visions of Pierce the Plowman from around 1350 that describes every rank of society being taken in death. 

Dance of Death commentators seem to have reached general though not unanimous agreement that the Bubonic plagues that struck Europe in the 14th century and recurred periodically through the 18th century played a central role. The scale of death from the plagues is incomprehensible to us today. Estimates of deaths range from 25 to 50 million in Europe alone. At these levels, out of every 100 people, 30 to 60 died from plague. Extrapolated to the United States today, comparable epidemics would kill 90 to 180 million US residents. Death was everywhere and so was fear and uncertainty. In such a climate, it is not surprising that panicked people sought answers to the mystery of the plagues and were prepared to accept explanations that more technologically advanced people would summarily dismiss. For example, minorities including foreigners, Jews, beggars and lepers all were accused of having caused the plagues and consequently suffered persecution. 

The most destructive plague probably occurred during the 14th century and coincided with a council summoned to meet in Basle, Switzerland in 1431 by Pope Eugenius IV. That council lasted for nearly 18 years with participation by many important members of the clergy and the nobility. The council’s work was interrupted by the plague that struck in 1439 and killed many council attendees. After the passage of this outbreak, the surviving council members commissioned a Dance of Death mural to be painted on the cemetery walls belonging to the convent of the Dominicans in Basle. Eight lines of verse accompanied each figure in the painting, four from Death and four in reply. We do not know the artist, though some believe it was Hans Holbein, a German who lived and worked in Basle for years. This seems highly unlikely, since the painting probably was completed sometime during the decade beginning with 1439, and Holbein was not born until nearly 60 years later. Regrettably, the painting has not survived but no doubt was fascinating. Matthew Merian’s 1649 book called Todten Tanz (“Death’s Dance” in German) described figures dressed in clothes appropriate to the times, and likenesses of the then current Pope Felix V, Sigismond, the Emperor of Germany and King Albert II of Germany were included. 

This Dance of Death painting on the walls of the Dominican’s cemetery in Basle was not the first of its kind, and images at least of equal age, if not earlier, could be found throughout Europe such as on bridges in Germany and Switzerland, in the cloisters of St. Innocent’s Church in Paris, and in the old cathedral of St. Paul in London. Even in Basle, the Dance of Death painting at the Klingenthal convent likely was substantially older. 

The clergy was particularly hard hit by the plagues causing an insufficient supply of priests to perform death bed rituals. In response, the Church published guidance in the 15th century, commonly referred to as Ars Moriendi, which may be translated as The Art of Dying. These books taught procedures for a good death and provided instruction about how to die well. Just some of the topics covered are ways to avoid temptations that appear before dying, such as loss of faith, the appropriate behavior for those at the death bed and prayers to be said for the dying. Ars Moriendi, were, in fact, published as block-books prior to their publication from movable type. 

The relationship between the plagues and the Dance of Death no doubt is strong, but perhaps not as strong as suggested by one early commentator who posited that the name was derived from the plague of 1373 whose symptoms included convulsions resembling a grotesque dance. Yet, the plagues bear additional responsibility for the Dance of Death, since its very name derives from the French danse macabre which first appeared in 1376 or soon thereafter in Le Respit de la Mort (“Respite from Death”), a poem celebrating the poet’s almost miraculous recovery from the plague, which enabled him to avoid the “danse macabre.”

Printed Dance of Death books were predated by many Dance of Death manuscripts and block-books. The date of the first publication of a printed Dance of Death book is uncertain. Some commentators believe it first appeared in Germany between 1459 and 1470. We know with certainty that a Toten Tanz was published in 1480 in Strasbourg. 

The earliest French version, the Danse Macabre, is believed to have been published in 1485 by Guy Marchant. Another version appeared in 1486 as La Grande Danse Macabre des Hommes et des Femmes, avec les dit des trois morts et trois vifs, le debat du corps et d’ame, la complainte de l’ame damnee et l’enseigment pour bien vivre et bien mourir

The Dance of Death flourished in many editions between 1485 and the 1538 publication of Hans Holbein’s revolutionary treatment of the subject. During this interim period, Books of Hours sometimes employed Dance of Death illustrations in chapters on death. 

The most famous and most important Dance of Death artist indisputably was Hans Holbein the Younger. We know him through his art, much of which has survived, but unfortunately, little documentary evidence of his life is available today. He was born in Augsburg, Germany in the winter of 1497- 1498, the second son of Hans Holbein the Elder, one of the most prominent panel painters of the Late Gothic period and an accomplished portrait painter. He and his brother were instructed in art by their father and each grew up to be an artist. The brothers moved to Basle, Switzerland when Hans was 18 years of age, and by 1520, he had achieved local fame as a woodcut designer, decorator and portrait painter. In time, Holbein became friendly with the renowned humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam whose now famous portrait he painted in 1523. Despite Holbein’s artistic success, financial success eluded him, and he departed Basel in quest of greater riches. Armed with a letter of recommendation from Erasmus to his friend Thomas More, Holbein traveled to England, where More provided him with income in the form of artistic commissions and a home in More’s own residence. In 1528, Holbein returned to Basel where he bought a house for his family. At that time, however, Basel was in the midst of the religious upheavals brought about by the Reformation, and local riots drove him back to London in 1532. Holbein visited Basel just once more, in 1538, by which time he had become court painter to Henry VIII whose now famous portrait he painted in 1540. 

Today, we think of Holbein primarily as a master Northern European portrait painter, but he was better known during his life for his graphic works, the most important of which was the Dance of Death. Holbein apparently was inspired to undertake the project after seeing the Dance of Death at St. Innocent’s Church in Paris. His Dance of Death drawings are believed to have been created by 1530 and served as designs for the woodcuts included in the now famous 1538 first edition published by Melchoir and Gaspar Trechsel in Lyon under the title Les Simulachres & histoirees faces de la Mort. Over the years, the identity of the woodcut artist has been modestly controversial. The uncertainty was abetted by the book’s dedication which states that the woodcut artist is dead. If true, the artist could not have been Holbein since he died in 1543, five years after the book’s publication. Some, however, have suggested that the dedication was a deliberate falsehood intended to prevent problems for Holbein stemming from his use of unflattering likenesses of important people in the designs. In any case, the strongest evidence to date rejects Holbein as the woodcut artist and instead points to the German artist Hans Lutzelburger with whom Holbein collaborated on earlier works. 

The 1538 edition has been described as one of the greatest illustrated books of all time. In Holbein’s classic Dance of Death interpretation, death visits everyone from the highest positions in society to the lowest while engaged in their day-to-day affairs. Holbein’s designs reflect his personal code of morality including the denunciation of greed and the unjust use of power. Perhaps the most powerful message in Holbein’s Dance of Death is that one should always be prepared to be judged by God since death can occur at any time. 

The Holbein designs are remarkably diverse and provide instructive glimpses of the dress and architecture of the times while showing a broad variety of backgrounds, figures and human emotions. The 1538 edition included 41 woodcuts. Later editions added more with the total eventually reaching 57. Five years after the original publication, Holbein died, purportedly and ironically of the plague.

Many later editions and interpretations followed the Holbein designs. For example, in 1789 Thomas and John Bewick produced a 52 woodcut version of which 51 were true to the original Holbein designs. John Bewick’s name also was used in an 1825 forgery about which a contemporary commentator pointed out that “. . . the cuts are absurdly modernized …” and “(i)f these cuts are Bewick’s . . . they are far inferior to his other work, and executed in a different style. . . They betray the tendency of the early nineteenth century to use the Dance of Death motive for purposes of caricature.” 

Wenceslaus Hollar, the Bohemian etcher born in Prague in 1607, created copperplate etchings for his own Dance of Death based upon his studies of existing works including Holbein’s. In Hollar’s 1647 interpretation, Death appeared as a prancing skeleton. As Hollar used the Holbein designs to create his etchings, another important Dance of Death artist, the Scot, David Deuchar (1743 – 1808), relied upon Hollar’s plates for his inspiration. 

As artistic freedom flourished over time, departures from the Holbein approach appeared. A notable example came from Thomas Rowlandson (1756 – 1827), the English painter and caricaturist who depicted life in England via amusing images of common social characters brimming with human frailties such as pretentiousness. In tackling the Dance of Death, Rowlandson employed his usual techniques in highlighting the morals and manners of early 19th century England. He created 72 illustrations for his Dance of Death, each of which was intended as a statement on morality. As further testimony to the shift in both style and attitude in the interpretation of the Dance of Death, the author William Combe created a poem called the Dance of Life that Rowlandson illustrated with 26 aquatints and which became a companion volume to the Dance of Death. Combe’s objective was to depict the cheerful and humorous satire of life and its many follies. 

A number of other versions of the Dance of Death appeared in the 19th century. Included among them was a fascinating large oblong folio from about 1830 containing 24 Dance of Death lithographic plates in the style of Niklaus Manuel Deutsch (1484 – 1530), the artist from Bern, Switzerland, who preceded Holbein. In that version, the usual Dance of Death hierarchy appears, but each figure’s costume, expression, gesture, and attitude is unfamiliar. Every plate depicts a confrontation between two large, almost playful skeletons interacting with two mortals of roughly equal station in life. Manuel Deutsch’s work had been eclipsed by Holbein’s and fell out of favor until reappearing several hundred years later in lithographic copies of the original paintings. A leading Dance of Death commentator noted that “the Bernese Dance of Death is the last one of the predecessors of the great Holbein masterpiece. It closed the epoch of the medieval wall paintings and marked the transition to a new period. It filled the criteria of great monumental folk art.” Warthin, Aldred. The Physician of the Dance of Death. New York: P. B. Hoeber, 1931, pp. 18-20. 

Also appearing in the 19th century were bilingual and tri-lingual editions with plates predominantly after Holbein and an 1868 edition from the bookseller, Bernard Quaritch. The cover in Quaritch’s edition contains a design showing Death beating on a kettle drum surrounded by a triangular frame of bones. Also included is a concise history of the origin and development of the Dance of Death by the English scholar Henry Noel Humphreys. 

Interest in the Dance of Death continued into the 20th century and beyond. For example, in 1964 the Pratt Graphic Art Center published Posada’s Dance of Death with a title page engraving by Fritz Eichenberg and four relief engravings by the Mexican artist Jose Guadlupe Posada. 

The Dance of Death resonates well beyond illustrated books. In music, for example, during the 19th century, Camille Saint-Saens wrote the Danse Macabre, Symphonic Poem in G Minor, Op. 40 and Franz Liszt wrote Totentanz. In the 20th century, a rock and roll band called Iron Maiden released an album entitled Dance of Death, and two other groups issued albums, one under the name Danse Macabre and the other La Grande Danse Macabre

Literature also owes a debt to the Dance of Death. Stephen King wrote a non-fiction book called Danse Macabre, several playwrights including W. H. Auden and August Strindberg wrote plays with that title, and several novels have been published bearing the name Dance of Death or Danse Macabre. Movies too have appropriated the Dance of Death. Laurence Olivier, for example, appeared in a film bearing that title, and in 2008 a horror film called Dance of Death was released. In television, an episode called the Dance of Death was released for viewers of the television show called The Prisoner.

The appeal of the Dance of Death stretches well beyond a magical name. Its history is not only engaging but also intellectually challenging, owing to many uncertainties and unresolved contradictions. Most noteworthy of all, however, is the remarkable and compelling iconography, created by some of the world’s greatest artists. Comparing iconographic interpretations, for instance, between Holbein and Rowlandson, elicits very different emotions despite the common moralizing of each. For those interested in better understanding the Dance of Death, examining the magnificent Holbein plates is a good way to start. 

Pricing and The Dance of Death

Given the many Dance of Death specimens, it is not surprising that the range of prices is vast. At the high end, the Doheny copy of a 1498 Book of Hours that included a suite of Dance of Death illustrations fetched $150,000 at a 1987 Christie’s auction in New York. Also at the high end are the work of Guy Marchant which is virtually unobtainable, and the rare 1538 Holbein first edition, Les Simulachres & histoirees faces de la Mort, currently available in the marketplace for nearly $50,000. A single copy of Le Respit de la Mort, priced at $14,500, is available on the market. 

Highly desirable but difficult to find is the work of Chrétien de Mechel, who supposedly engraved his Dance of Death designs in the late 18th century from a set of original drawings by Hollar. One can expect to spend roughly $15,000 for his extremely rare four part Death of Death work, when it can be found. Individual Mechel parts are available at substantially lower prices. 

Most other Dance of Death editions can be acquired for less than $5,000, though some hand colored editions have fetched five figures at auction. Prices for truly uncommon editions can be high, e.g., an extremely scarce Danish Dance of Death currently is on the market for roughly $4,000.Among the most desirable editions is the colorful Rowlandson set consisting of The Dance of Death and The Dance of Life for which a collector can expect to pay between $3,000 and $4,000. Also highly sought are the Hollar, Bewick and Deuchar editions that generally can be found for under $3,000. 

Bruce H. Barnett is the owner of The Book Block, an antiquarian book business located in Lake Forest, Illinois. Trained in law and finance, he holds a J.D. and Master of Laws in Taxation from the NYU School of Law and studied at the Graduate Business School at Columbia, the University of Connecticut, NYU and Michigan. He practiced finance and tax law for over 30 years and has written and lectured extensively on taxation. Contact him at