Article

Dance of Death

Sophie Oosterwijk

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online April 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0020
Dance of Death

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
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  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
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The Dance of Death (or Danse Macabre) is an allegorical confrontation of the living with death. It is both a literary and a visual theme that aims to remind readers and viewers of their own mortality by presenting a range of social representatives who are summoned to die. Its origins are still a matter for debate, but the theme most likely developed in the 14th century and combines morality with estates satire. The earliest extant version appears to be the Spanish Dança general de la Muerte dialogue poem of c. 1390–1400, yet there must have been earlier prototypes, as there is already mention of “de Macabré la dance” in Jean le Fèvre’s 1376 poem Le respit de la mort. The earliest recorded visual example is a (lost) wall painting of 1424–1425 in Paris, which became the catalyst for the spread of the theme across Europe; it incorporated the French dialogue poem with a painted chain of dead and living dancers. John Lydgate adapted the French poem for his Middle English Dance of Death c. 1426, which formed the basis for a (lost) painted cycle of c. 1430 at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The German Totentanz tradition may have been a parallel development: visual examples include the (lost) painted cycles in Basel (c. 1440) and Lübeck (1463). The series of woodcuts designed by Hans Holbein the Younger in the early 1520s (published in 1538) signals a new Renaissance approach to the theme.

Article.  8252 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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