In the late Middle Ages, one thing bound all people together, from bishops to peasants: their mortality. This cultural obsession with mortality manifested itself in various ways, but none captured the artistic imagination more than the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death.
Danse Macabre was an allegorical artistic theme that emerged in Europe at the beginning of the 15th century. In the previous century, the catastrophic plague known as the Black Death had decimated Europe and brought a grim reminder that no one lived forever. These lessons were immortalized in the Danse Macabre genre, which encompassed visual art, literature, music, and performance art.
Dances of Death depict Death (represented by a skeleton) leading the living to their end. Traditional interpretations, such as the 16th-century The Dance of Death by an anonymous German artist in The Met collection, portray an actual dance between the living and the nonliving. In these dances, people of all classes are represented, whether they be peasants or clergy members. Through an inclusion of people from all walks of life, Death is depicted as the ultimate equalizer.
The first recorded visual interpretation of the Danse Macabre was a series of (now lost) paintings created between 1424 and 1425 at the Cimitière des Innocents in Paris. It depicted people in order of the medieval hierarchy, from the high-ranking Pope and emperor to the lowest ranks of society: beggars, peasants, and children. The figures all held hands with a skeleton, who escorted them beyond earthly life.
Later, Renaissance versions show scenes of Death interrupting the living throughout their daily lives. Often these images were inscribed with moral lessons, such as “Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich,” which translates from German to “Whether poor or rich, all are equal in death.”
In German art, the Dance of Death was famously interpreted in a 16th-century series by Hans Holbein the Younger, who used the traditional iconography of the genre as a societal satire. Holbein showed his skeletons sneaking up on people and denouncing greediness and the abuse of power in 41 different scenes. Countless artists were inspired by Holbein’s mischievous skeletons, notably Wenceslaus Hollar, whose work can be seen in The Met collection.
Skeletons are often depicted playing instruments as they dance, such as the dulcimer, a string instrument played with a small hammer. These instruments allude to the musical interpretations of the Danse Macabre and lend a lighthearted element to the serious subject matter.
These prints and paintings served as mementos mori, or reminders of the fragility of life. They encouraged viewers to acknowledge the vanity and brevity of their lives, as well as to live morally. These themes are echoed throughout time and culture, from the Dutch Vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries to the skull figures that today are still associated with the Mexican Dia de los Muertos festival.