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Art Through Time: A Global View

Death Art: Death leading a doctor holding a vial of urine. La Danse Macabre.

» Unknown artist, France

Death leading a doctor holding a vial of urine. La Danse Macabre.

Death leading a doctor holding a vial of urine. La Danse Macabre.
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, France
Region: Europe
Date: Late 15th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Tempera on parchment
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Location: Bibliotheque de la Sorbonne, Paris, France
Credit: Courtesy of Snark/Art Resource, NY

La Dance Macabre or “Dance of Death” is a medieval parable on the universality of death.

Its lesson: Death will come to everyone, no matter what his or her status in life. A scene from the Dance of Death is the focal point of the manuscript page seen here. The illustration, set above two columns of text, shows Death, personified as a skeleton, tugging at the sleeve of a doctor whom he leads toward the great unknown beyond the edge of the image’s frame. The rest of the page is covered in floral and arabesque motifs, the elegant beauty of which contrasts sharply with the grim skulls placed at various points along the edges.

In this scene, as in other versions of the Dance of Death, the doctor holds up a vial of urine to the light, inspecting it for disease. In a German manuscript created around the same time, a similar image is accompanied by these lines written in the doctor’s voice: “If I’m looking correctly at my water, / then my [medical] art is totally done. / Now I can no longer save my own life, / Even if I were given half a pharmacy.” The doctor, despite his knowledge and resources, is no more able to escape death than the aristocrats, bishops, plowmen, and scholars who appear in other Dance of Death scenes.

Widespread illness was a fact of life for medieval Europeans. The Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, devastated the population in the fourteenth century. Dance of Death imagery both reflected the constant presence of death in their lives and reinforced it, demanding that viewers contemplate their end and prepare their souls for judgment.

Expert Perspective:
Larry Silver, Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

“In the late Middle Ages, death was a much more gripping and visible, palpable, almost frightening presence for people. And what we call charnel houses, which are places where the bones of the dead accumulate, were places that people sometimes would go for a frightening reminder of death. Often that was the place where wall paintings of what we call the ‘Dance of Death,’ a skeletal figure for each and every individual, each walk of life, was a long procession, one by one, with the figure of death.

To confront an image of a skeleton that’s supposed to be relevant to you as an individual means that you have to think about your salvation, and the fact that you could go at any day. In an era that was full of plagues, that was certainly an omnipresent threat. People had to stop and think about what their salvation meant and what it might mean to die very suddenly.

If you thumb through the pages of a Dance of Death series of prints, or if you go and visit the few remaining images of the Dance of Death on the walls of churches or church yards, you can get a pretty good sense of the total effect of seeing an entire society, with individuals representing their roles, accompanied each one of them by a figure of skeletal death.”

Additional Resources

Binski, Paul. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Eichenberg, Fritz. The Dance of Death: A Graphic Commentary on the Danse Macabre through the Centuries. New York: Abbeville Press, 1983.

“Danse Macabre, Dance of Death, Todtentanz.” In The Fantastic in Art and Fiction. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library Web site. http://fantastic.library.cornell.edu/dance.php.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2