dance of death

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Death, Dance of

Death, Dance of, or danse macabre (däns məkäˈbrə, –bər, dăns), originally a 14th-century morality poem. The poem was a dialogue between Death and representatives of all classes from the Pope down. By the 15th cent., pictorial representation with verses illustrating the pictures became common. The dance, in which Death as a skeleton or a corpse led his victims, was painted on walls of churchyards and cemeteries. The earliest known fully articulated example of the Dance of Death was a series of mural paintings (1424–25) in the cloisters of the Church of the Holy Innocents, Paris. The paintings were destroyed in 1669. In 1485, Guyot Marchand published a set of 17 woodcuts, with verses appended, based on the Paris murals; the set went through many editions and established its own genre. The best-known representations of the Dance of Death are the drawings of Holbein, the younger. Goethe wrote a ballad on the theme, Der Todtentanz, and in music Saint-Saëns used it in Danse macabre.


See facsimile of G. Marchand's Dance of Death (1945); H. Holbein, Dance of Death (1538, new ed. 1972); study by L. P. Kurtz (1934).

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Dance of Death

Holbein woodcut, one of many medieval examples of the death motif. [Eur. Culture: Bishop, 363-367]
See: Death
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.