Danse macabre with a dying infant

The danse macabre (‘dance of death’) was an allegorical genre depicting the universality of death: whatever our station, death unites us all. Its origins are sometimes attributed to illustration of sermons. The first example is believed to have been a mural on the charnel house of the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris in 1424-5; thereafter it spread across Europe, often on the outside of churches. It was subject to iconoclasm after the Reformation: a dance of death, painted on the walls of the cloister of St Paul’s in London, was destroyed in 1549. This example is from a printed book by Anthoine Vérard of Paris. The colophon states: ‘Cy finist la da[n]ce macabre historiee et augumentee de plusieurs novueaux personnages et beaux dits’. (‘Here finishes the dance of death illustrated and embellished with numerous new characters and good tales‘). It contains thirty-five curious and highly finished illuminations, each describing a dialogue between Death and a character whom he addresses. On this opening, death dances with a priest, a labourer, a monk and a child: there are verses below in French, alternating between gruesome humour, levelling wit, and pathos. The poignant gesture of death holding the arm of ‘le petit enfant’ in the cradle on the right, contrasts with the intimate complicity with which death tugs the arm of the priest on the left. BC

Danse macabre (French, 1492).

LPL: MS 279, fo.7v-8r.

Further Reading

Paul Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation (London, 1996), pp. 153-59.

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