By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University
By far, the most widespread and popular form of artistic expression to emerge from the ravages of the Black Death was the representation of what is known as the danse macabre, or dance of death. This artistic theme probably existed before the arrival of the Black Death, but with the onslaught of the plague, it became an increasingly popular subject for representation.
Death: The Great Equalizer
The earliest use of the term danse macabre comes from a Frenchman named Jean le Fèvre who used it in a poem he composed in 1376 as he himself was recovering from the plague. In danse macabre paintings, drawings, and woodcuts, Death—represented as a skeleton—is usually shown engaging in a very enthusiastic dance, sometimes with other skeletons.
Most often, the skeleton or skeletons are shown holding hands with a long line of living people, dancing them away to their deaths—kind of like a much more upsetting version of the Pied Piper, although that story is pretty disturbing just as it is.
The key point in all danse macabre representations is that every member of society is shown as participating in this dance. So, for example, you’ll often see a clergyman holding hands with a farmer who is holding the hand of a child who might be holding the hand of the king.
Or sometimes, the Three Orders of society are represented in descending order, so kings and popes are first, then the lower ranks of society, all the way down to the lowest peasants. The message is pretty clear—death is the great equalizer. This was a lesson that everyone had learned during that first wave of plague.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The French Version of the Dance of Death
Many of the danse macabre images have been lost down through the ages, but we know they existed because people mentioned them. At the cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris, for example, we know that there was a very influential depiction of the danse macabre in a mural on one of the walls of the cemetery, and it was accompanied by Jean le Fèvre’s poem on the subject written on the wall right next to it.
Les Innocents no longer exists, so this mural is lost to time, but judging from personal accounts from the period, it seems to have made a huge impression on all those who saw it. The bones from Les Innocents were later moved to the famous catacombs of Paris above one of the entrances, to which is a sign reading Arrète! C’est ici l’empire de la mort. Or in English, Stop! Here is the empire of death.
Learn more about how the Black Death transformed the world.
The Depiction of the Dance of Death in England
Another version of the danse macabre was painted on a wall of a plague cemetery at Old Saint Paul’s Churchyard in London. The great English poet John Lydgate translated le Fèvre’s poem from French into English, and this version appeared on the wall next to the fresco.
Both the English painting and Lydgate’s translation appear to have become no more sometime around 1549 when the cloister was pulled down, but again, from contemporary accounts, we know that this image and text existed and made an impact on all those who saw them.
Learn more about the medieval theories on the Black Death.
The Dance of Death in Drama
The danse macabre was a popular subject not only in paintings and drawings but also in dramatic performances. In these allegorical dramas that were often part of some sort of religious service, the figure of death would usually ask characters representing all levels of society, one by one, to dance with him.
While the characters could not refuse, they were portrayed as having one choice to make—salvation or damnation. The message here is clear—repent now and clean up your life before death comes to take you.
A variation on the theme of the dance of death was The Triumph of Death. In these representations, no one is dancing—rather, Death is depicted as a warrior who fights against the living. Quite often, the allegorical struggle between life and death is thus depicted as an actual war, with Death and Life standing against one another on the battlefield with swords drawn.
While the danse macabre image was pervasive in medieval France, England, and Germany, the evidence suggests that the Triumph of Death theme in visual form was particularly popular in Italy. Not only is it the main subject of paintings in Subiaco and Palermo, but there are many others, including one in the Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa.
Common Questions about the Dance of Death during the Great Mortality
The earliest use of danse macabre was in a poem written by Jean le Fèvre. He composed the poem when he was recovering from the plague.
We know these images existed because of people’s accounts of seeing paintings of dance of death in places like Les Innocents in Paris or Old Saint Paul’s Churchyard in London and being impacted by what they saw.
In dramas made with dance of death in mind, death would appear as a character asking each character to dance. The characters, who represented different tiers of society, couldn’t refuse, but they could choose between salvation and damnation.