By the 15th century, an ominous motif was established in art and literature: the danse macabre, or dance of death. Skeletons and cadavers draped with putrified flesh cavorted with the living in murals and woodcuts, mingling with people from across social classes as reminders of the fate they all shared. One of the most famous depictions was the 1463 frieze by Bernt Notke at St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck, Germany. Set against a landscape of the surrounding city, 24 figures, from pope to peasant to corpse, were led in a life-size chain of movement by a skeleton with a flute. It was destroyed in a 1942 Allied bombing during World War II.
Although the dance of death reached its peak in the Late Middle Ages, its imagery remains. Dancing with Death, at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin, is exploring works on paper from the 15th to 20th centuries that are part of this visual tradition. “Danse macabre wasn’t just a generalized response to mortality, but instead specifically a performative social leveling that could be used by Late Medieval Christians to think about mortality and the inevitability of physical decay,” Elizabeth Welch, Andrew W. Mellon curatorial fellow in prints, drawings, and European paintings at the Blanton Museum, told Hyperallergic.
Welch organized the exhibition, which draws on etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, engravings, and other works on paper at the Blanton Museum. “One of the fascinating things is the way the macabre — the interest in the materiality of decay — comes in and out of the visual representations,” Welch stated. She added that in its “earliest iterations, the danse macabre was building off of Late Medieval representations of the decayed body in things like transi.” A transi, also known as a cadaver tomb, depicts a person in the process of decomposition, and emerged in Europe in the 14th century. The earliest known visual of the dance of death was painted in the following century: a 1424-25 fresco in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris.
“Transi tombs really revel in rotting flesh,” Welch said. “They’re visceral, so the early danse macabre adapts that material focus to a social message about the inevitability of death.” For instance, Michael Wolgemut’s 1493 woodcut “Imago Mortis [The Dance of Death]” has four skeletons gleefully gamboling above a grave, in which another corpse waves from beneath its shroud. Shreds of skin, and even some entrails, hang off their prancing bones. While gruesome, there’s a dark humor in this morbidly playful art. Later images, like Stefano Della Bella’s 1648 “Death Carrying off a Child,” depict death more seriously, and as its own character. Della Bella employed the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents as the setting for his The Five Deaths series. He updated death’s presence as one that interrupts life’s pleasures without warning, rather than just waltzing alongside.
“By the 19th century, artists weren’t as interested in the materiality of the failed body, but instead were using ‘death’ as a character to make political, social, or artistic comments,” Welch said. “I like to describe those later skeletons as sanitized or ‘boiled bones.'”
An example is Alfred Rethel’s 1851 wood engraving “Death as Strangler.” Based on a story of cholera’s first appearance in France, it features a smooth skeleton dressed in a monk’s robe, strutting forward to the rhythm of the music it plays on a fiddle. Behind the bony specter are corpses of costumed revelers, struck down by this sudden disease. Dances of death were not confined to two-dimensional art — the ivory memento mori carvings of Renaissance Europe involved two-faced prayer beads where death alternated with portraits of the living — yet books and prints were a way to bring these messages of shared mortality to a wide audience.
“We think it’s really illuminating when a subject, such as this one, spans a long time frame, because it’s usually fascinating to see how artists of different eras and cultures treat the same subject,” Carter E. Foster, deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Blanton Museum, told Hyperallergic.
The work in Dancing with Death continues up to the late 20th century, including Luis Jiménez’s 1984 lithographic print “Baile con la talaca [Dance with the Skeleton],” in which a man discovers the woman in his arms has been transformed into a cadaver. The animated skeleton that first manifested in the 15th century and proliferated in the 16th and 17th centuries endures as a personification of our anxiety over death, whether in the Day of the Dead imagery in Mexico, or the zombies that prowl through film and television. As this 1635 print of death with a cross-bow, embedded below, reminds the viewer, death always stays on its target. So seize this fleeting day.
Dancing with Death continues through November 26 at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin (200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Austin, Texas).