Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dance of Death

Originally a species of spectacular play akin to the English moralities

Click to enlarge

Dance of Death (French, Dance Macabre, Germ. Todtentanz).—The “Dance of Death” was originally a species of spectacular play akin to the English moralities. It has been traced back to the middle of the fourteenth century. The epidemics so frequent and so destructive at the time, such as the Black Death, brought before popular imagination the subject of death and its universal sway. The dramatic movement then developing led to its treatment in the dramatic form. In these plays Death appeared not as the destroyer, but as the messenger of God summoning men to the world beyond the grave, a conception familiar both to Holy Writ and to the ancient poets. The dancing movement of the characters was a somewhat later development, as at first Death and his victims moved at a slow and dignified gait. But Death, acting the part of a messenger, naturally took the attitude and movement of the traditional messengers of the day, namely the fiddlers and other musicians, and the dance of death was the result.

The purpose of these plays was to teach the truth that all men must die and should therefore prepare themselves to appear before their Judge. The scene of the play was usually the cemetery or churchyard, though sometimes it may have been the church itself. The spectacle was opened by a sermon on the certainty of death delivered by a monk. At the close of the sermon there came forth from the charnel-house, usually found in the churchyard, a series of figures decked out in the traditional mask of death, a close-fitting, yellowish linen suit painted so as to resemble a skeleton. One of them addresses the intended victim, who is invited to accompany him beyond the grave. The first victim was usually the pope or the emperor.

The invitation is not regarded with favor and various reasons are given for declining it, but these are found insufficient and finally death leads away his victim. A second messenger then seizes the hand of a new victim, a prince or a cardinal, who is followed by others representing the various classes of society, the usual number being twenty-four. The play was followed by a second sermon reinforcing the lesson of the representation.

The oldest traces of these plays are found in Germany, but we have the Spanish text for a similar dramatic performance dating back to the year 1360, “La Danza General de In Muerte”. We read of similar dramatic representations elsewhere: in Bruges before Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1449; in 1453 at Besancon, and in France in the Cimetiere des Innocents near Paris in 1424. That similar spectacles were known in England we infer from John Lydgate‘s “Dance of Death” written in the first half of the fifteenth century. In Italy besides the traditional dance of death we find spectacular representations of death as the all-conqueror in the so-called “Trionfo Bella Morte”. The earliest traces of this conception may be found in Dante and Petrarch. In Florence (1559) the “triumph of death” formed a part of the carnival celebration. We may describe it as follows: After dark a huge wagon, draped in black and white and drawn by oxen, drove through the streets of the city. At the end of the shaft was seen the Angel of Death blowing the trumpet. On the top of the wagon stood a great figure of Death carrying a scythe and surrounded by coffins. Around the wagons were covered graves which opened whenever the procession halted. Men dressed in black garments on which were painted skulls and bones came forth and, seated on the edge of the graves, sang dirges on the shortness of human life. Before and behind the wagon appeared men in black and white bearing torches and death masks, followed by banners displaying skulls and bones and skeletons riding on scrawny nags. While they marched the entire company sang the Miserere with trembling voices.

Specimens of the dramatic dance of death have been preserved in the Altsfeld Passion Plays, in the French morality entitled “Charite”, and in the Neumarkt Passion Play which opens with the triumph of Death. As the painter’s art developed, the dance of death was in a way made permanent by being painted on the enclosing walls of cemeteries, on charnel-houses, in mortuary chapels, and even in churches. These representations are found in most of the countries of Europe. One of the most famous is the “Triumph of Death” in the cemetery of Pisa, painted between 1450 and 1500. One of the oldest pictures of the dance of death proper is that in the Cimetiere des Innocents at Paris (1425). Baumker, in Herder‘s “Kirchenlexikon”, enumerates seven French dances of death dating back to the fifteenth century, three of the sixteenth century, three of the seventeenth century, seven of uncertain date, five in England, and four in Italy. Within the limits of the old German Empire there still exist some thirty painted dances of death scattered throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. In many representations underneath the several couples are found a rhymed dialogue between Death and his victims, being the invitation of the former and the reply of his victim.


With the development of his art the dance of death naturally became a popular theme for the engraver. Many such prints were produced by various German artists, but the most famous version is that of the younger Holbein, issued in 1538 by the brothers Trechsel at Lyons. It appears to be clear from the researches of Wornum and Woltmann, of Paul Mantz, of W. J. Linton, the Rev. G. Davies, C. Dodgson, and others, that the drawings were undoubtedly the work of Hans Holbein the younger, who was resident in Basle up to the autumn of 1526, before which time the drawings must have been produced. They are distinctly in his manner and of extraordinarily high merit. There is no evidence that Holbein ever cut a wood block himself, and when these were issued it was expressly stated that the artist or engraver, who is now generally accepted as Hans Lutszelberger, one of the greatest of German engravers, was dead. But little is known of his career. He was certainly dead before 1526. The designs appear to have been cut on the wood eleven years before the book was published, and their issue was probably held back by reason of the unsettled state of religious opinion in Basle. The series comprises forty-two engravings, the subjects expressed with masterly dramatic power, marvelous clearness, and marked reticence of line. Technically they are as perfect as woodcuts can be. There are five sets of proof impressions in existence, and the little book passed through nine editions at Lyons and was printed also in Venice, Augsburg, and Basle. There have been many reissues and reproductions of it, and a facsimile of the first edition was published in Munich in 1884.

Besides the “Dance of Death” Holbein designed a series of initials consisting of an alphabet in which it is the motif. Of Holbein’s larger “Dance of Death” more than one hundred editions have appeared. Since Holbein this subject has been treated again and again, especially by German engravers. The most noted of recent dances of death is that by Alfred Rethel, 1848, in which Death is represented as the hero of the Red Republic. Both the conception and the execution of Rethel’s engravings are highly artistic and impressive.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!