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Macabre Imagery: Visual Representations of the Dance of Death

This is a guest post by Jennifer Eberhardt, Special Collections,The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Season’s greetings from the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts! Featuring selections from the Dance Division’s rare book collection, a new case exhibit on the third floor of the Library for the Performing Arts presents a small historical survey of the characteristic imagery and common features of visual representations of the theme of the dance of death.

Walter Draesner, Ein Totentanz (Berlin and Leipzig, 1922), *MGRI-Res. 72-629
Walter Draesner, Ein Totentanz (Berlin and Leipzig, 1922), *MGRI-Res. 72-629


Visual treatments of the dance of death (danse macabre, Totentanz) emerged as a recurring form of memento mori—a reminder of mortality—during the Renaissance and persisted in various forms and adaptations into the twentieth century. Tracing their origins to medieval allegory and illustrated religious texts, these depictions conventionally personify Death in the figure of a human skeleton, capturing the moment he comes to summon his victims to their final demise. Frequently, Death carries an hourglass, spear, or arrow as symbols of the passage of time and life’s impermanence. Many early examples include a brief verse or two-part dialogue between Death and his chosen prey that serves to frame the scene and offer a lesson on the inescapability of death.

Guy Marchant, La danse macabre (Paris, 1925), *MGRI-Res. 73-340
Guy Marchant, La danse macabre (Paris, 1925), *MGRI-Res. 73-340


The most well-known visual setting of the dance of death subject is a series of 41 woodcuts by German artist Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1593), published in 1538. Holbein’s woodcuts are arranged in a sequence according to the social rank or occupation of Death’s victims, an organization characteristic of many early dance of death interpretations. Common representative classes include the nobility (emperor/empress, king/queen), religious figures (pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, monk/nun), educated classes (judge, doctor, lawyer, merchant), and peasantry (laborer, farmer, old man, infant). Regardless of status, Death ensures a universal fate.

Wenceslaus Hollar after Holbein, in Holbein’s Dance of Death (London, 1858), *MGRI-Res. 72-622
Wenceslaus Hollar after Holbein, in Holbein’s Dance of Death (London, 1858), *MGRI-Res. 72-622


Later examples of the dance of death sometimes forego this typology of socio-economic classes, but most preserve the general form of a series of thematic variations. Several of the Dance Division’s holdings on this subject, including some displayed currently as part of this exhibit, are nineteenth- and twentieth-century reprints of earlier dance of death texts —testifying to an enduring interest in our eventual, inevitable end.

Following the exhibition, the majority of the Dance Division's holdings on the dance of death can be located by searching within the *MGRI-Res.classmark in the catalog, or by contacting dance@nypl.org.

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