I am fascinated by the ways different cultures talk about and cope with death, partly because, cliches about taxes aside, death is the one true universal (except, perhaps, shit, but that’s harder to personify). One of my favourite western* death imagery traditions is the danse macabre, a mediaeval trope in which death is depicted as a dance that we all must someday join. And today, for no apparent reason, I feel like discussing this sort of imagery and its more recent manifestations.
A typical danse macabre—they originally occurred as murals in churches—has a skeletal Death leading people from different social castes in a dance. Since this is a mediaeval European tradition, the participants often include a knight/nobleman, a pope or other clergy member, a peasant/labourer, and perhaps a lady or child. The message was that all were made equal in death. Here’s a link to an example from a church in Tallinn, Estonia (the picture’s too big to include in this post.)
One of the most famous danses macabres is a series of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger, published in 1538. Each illustration features Death (sometimes more than one skeleton appears) leading a different victim—Pope, emperor, noblewoman, young child, robber, ploughman, etc.—off to the grave, and is accompanied by verses in French imagining the dialogue between Death and the victim. The whole book is available from Project Gutenberg. I’ve included one image, The Old Man, above. Death appears to be playing a zither, and is helping a stooped old man down into his grave.
Most of Holbein’s woodcuts don’t have Death actually dancing, despite the title. But Death is playing a variety of different instruments, so there’s still a suggestion of a dance. (The instruments include violin, trumpet, bagpipes, lute, various drums, xylophone, and some woodwind instruments that I can’t identify – maybe hauteboys. Death is quite a talented dude.)
Holbein is conveying a specific moral message in The Dance of Death, one quite different from the allegory’s original intentions. The mediaeval danse macabre was meant to inspire sinners to repent; Holbein’s message is specifically to the monied classes, suggesting that they take pity on the poor. After all, everyone is equal in the eyes of God. But it is interesting that this idea can be twisted in such different directions. Arguably, the intent of mediaeval danses macabres was to suggest that the peasantry not try to change their lot, because after death they’d be just as well off as the gentry.
Here’s another Holbein danse macabre: an alphabet of death! I need a print of this to hang next to my Gashlycrumb Tinies poster.
Note that Death always appears as a skeleton, or as an extremely emaciated corpse. This depiction is often associated with the bubonic plague. Similar images also led to what we call the Grim Reaper—death as a black-cloaked skeleton holding a scythe. As far as I can tell, Death as skeleton is linked to the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse—Death/Pestilence riding a pale horse—in the book of Revelations. No doubt the Black Death seemed apocalyptic at the time, since it killed a up to a third of Europe’s population in three years.
But the idea of death as a dance is rather strange. Partly since, you know, the average corpse is more than a little clumsy. My own totally unsupported hypothesis is that, since death was so close at hand during the duration of the Black Death, and since the only way of dealing with the propinquity of death other than total despair is black humour, the danse macabre is meant to be somewhat comical.
Some of the modern adaptations of the danse macabre illustrate my point. The series of videos I posted for Hallowe’en show some examples, several of which I’ll re-link to here. First is a Disney animation called “Skeleton Dance“, then Danny Elfman’s “Remains of the Day“** from the Tim Burton movie Corpse Bride, which is clearly influenced by the former. One thing you should notice about both is the use of (fleshless) skeletons, rather than zombies, as the dancers. To me, there is something comical about skeletons: they’re traditionally described as grinning (having no lips to hide their teeth), they’re thin and gangly like an awkward teenager, and you can imagine their bones clicking together in time to the music. Zombies, on the other hand, are lumbering and gross…and, well, I couldn’t picture one dancing***. There’s also endless potential for making bones into musical instruments. Use of vertebrae, skulls, or ribcages as percussion instruments occurs in both videos, and the latter also makes some skeletons into string basses! And, of course, there’s the quintessential xylophone sound used to represent rattling bones. This may have originated with the song Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns (link is to a lovely Tim Burton mashup), in which Death is not only the dance leader but also a fiddle player. Saint-Saëns used a similar motif in the “Fossils” movement of Carnival of the Animals—again, a comic effect is clearly intended.
(As an aside, I love how the Saint-Saëns piece is just so danceable. It could make your soul dance right out of your body. Here is a gratuitous link to one of many figure skating routines set to this music. It works very well for figure skaters because it’s so…spinny.)
There’s quite a repertoire of music representing danses macabres in addition to the Saint-Saëns: a Totentanz (German for dance of death) by Liszt, a choral piece by Mussorgsky, and quite a few others. Many of these are not comedic at all; on the contrary, they’re quite dark and brooding. Which I suppose is a fairly normal way to treat death. Especially if you’re a late Romantic composer.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the most famous recent incarnation of the danse macabre, the final scene of Ingmar Bergmann’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal. The central theme of this film is the same as that of the danse macabre: that all are made equal in death. And fittingly, the final scene of the movie [uh, spoiler alert] features Death leading most of the movie’s characters in a dance, silhouetted on the horizon beneath distant stormclouds. The picture I’ve included here shows this scene as it appears tattooed on my back; yes, I’m an incorrigible showoff.
*But see Nataraj, one of Shiva’s incarnations, the Lord of the Dance who also destroys the universe.
**I’m not ashamed to admit that this song is the reason I first read Kazuo Ishiguro. And hey, it totally paid off!