Save the Last Dance for Death

by MSO

The first mural with the Dance of Death theme was found at the Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris. The frescos were painted under the arches.

Death does not care about social position, the riches you have, your age or how smart you are when it leads you into its dance. Nor can anyone sit out that most important dance by making excuses. The Dance of Death was a theme that was developed in the Middle Ages that portrayed death as the great equalizer and was enhanced by many European artists and writers.

Skeletons or corpses, which represented death, were depicted as dance partners of the living. The living characters ranged from kings and popes to merchants, robbers, peasants and even innocent children. Women were rarely portrayed. No one escaped death’s scrutiny or certainty. In most paintings, the Dance of Death also included a musical instrument which Death used in order to charm mankind with his music as he had a hard time charming them on his own.

Many of the paintings also included verses that spoke of the conversations between death and his dance partner. Death was sometimes cynical or sarcastic and often threatening whereas Man was remorseful, begging for mercy and, of course, time.

Between 1423 and 1424, a fresco of the Dance of Death or Danse Macabre was painted on a wall of a charnier at the Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris. In the 14th and 15th centuries, cemeteries were overcrowded and arched structures called charniers were built along the cemetery walls; the bones from the overcrowded graves were deposited above and around these arches. This fresco was the earliest depiction of the Dance of Death theme but was unfortunately destroyed in 1669 though a book published in 1485 included a woodcut of the original.

Re-creations of the Parisian Dance of Death theme spread throughout Europe. Some were painted on canvas, others were depicted in manuscripts but the majority of the Dance of Death frescos decorated the walls of cloisters, inside churches, in family vaults and ossuaries. Many depicted long chains of dancers where Death was interspersed with living characters.

The Dance of Death was thought to be a lesson for the living. It was a warning to rich and powerful men and women to lead Christian lives and a comfort to the poor who were relieved to find that their station in life would not matter after they died. In its simplicity the Dance of Death theme showed all people that life was short and that no one could escape that last dance which was their death.

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