Dance of Death

views updated May 29 2018


The German expression for dance of death is Totentanz, meaning a dance of the dead, not of personified Death. The bizarre French term danse macabre, or danse de Macabré, is of uncertain origin, though there is a traditional interpretation as "dance of the Machabees." The gruesome story recorded in 2 Mc 7 fits in neatly with the idea and could quite well be associated in some way with the dance of death, for such it was.

The so-called "dance" is not a dance at all but a motif that found expression in prose and poetry, in painting and sculpture, in music, in sermon, and on the stage. Some writers have developed the theory that it arose from the succession of terrible plagues and disasters that struck Europe in the 14th century, the most devastating being the Black Death (134850). Others consider it a derivation

from the motif of "the three living and the three dead" that began to appear in French literature as early as the 13th century, wherein three young men are suddenly confronted by three decomposing dead men who warn them of their approaching death. There is still another possibility that the dance was an elaboration of superstition and folklore about ghostly dancing in graveyards or the dance of preternatural creatures luring men to their doom. This cannot be demonstrated in exact citations, but there are intimations of it in the many accounts of visits to the underworld (Vergil, Dante, and a host of lesser writers). Thus there are at least four possible concepts (perhaps many more) that account for the appearance and widespread popularity of the dance of death in the 15th century.

The "dance" is a representation of a horrible corpse leading a living man by the hand, the corpse being the man as he will be after death. The portrayal (whether in art or in literature) was therefore a pictorial exhortation that could have religious, moral, or satirical import and sometimes had all three at once. It was also an attempt to teach at least the equality of all men before the leveling hand of death. In attenuated form it persisted into the 18th century in the phrase (and its representations) "Et in Arcadia ego," and indeed the motif has not entirely disappeared. It survives in Halloween customs, tombstone epitaphs, mystery magazines, and popular radio and television programs, especially those with musical background, and in particular with the familiar composition by Camille Saint-Saëns, La Danse Macabre.

No doubt the best known "Dance of Death" is the series of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497?1543), printed in Lyons in 1538. From that date to 1562, ten more authentic editions were published. Later copies and imitations have been estimated at more than 100. In these pictures Death confronts pope, emperor, cardinal, empress, duke, abbot, judge, senator, preacher, nun, old woman, physician, astrologer, merchant, rich man, seaman, knight, countess, peddler, plowman, child, drunkard, fool, beggar, bride, and many others. Here is found the culmination of the genre: all classes of society are equal in the presence of the Grim Reaper.

Bibliography: j. m. clark, The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein (London 1947); The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Glasgow 1950). j. huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, tr. f. hopman (Garden City, N.Y. 1954). e. panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts (Garden City, N.Y. 1955) 295320. l. p. kurtz, The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature (New York 1934). e. k. stahl, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 1, ed. m. buchberger, 10 v. (Freiburg 193038) 10: unnumbered insert p. between cols. 228 and 229. f. eichenberg, The Dance of Death: A Graphic Commentary on the Danse Macabre Through the Centuries (New York 1983).

[a. cabaniss]

Dance of Death

views updated Jun 11 2018

Dance of Death or Danse Macabre or Totentanz. A defiant reaction, principally in medieval Europe, to the unpredictable but inevitable occurrence of death. It was evoked especially by the spread of bubonic plague in the 14th cent., when sufferers danced in graveyards. Of many illustrations, Holbein's woodcuts, ‘Totentanz’, are particularly well-known. This deliberate confronting of death has a remote parallel in the Buddhist contemplation of death and of the frailties in the body which lead to it: see e.g. DEVA-DŪTA; DHĀTU-VAVATTHĀNA; FOUR LAST THINGS.

Dance of Death

views updated May 21 2018

Dance of Death Woof! House of Evil; Macabre Serenade 1968

Just before his death, Karloff agreed to appear in footage for four Mexican cheapies that were practically thrown together (Karloff actually filmed his scenes in Los Angeles). If they had mixed the footage instead of matched it, the flicks couldn't be any worse. This one concerns a lunatic toy-maker whose toys kill and maim his heirs. 89m/C VHS, DVD . MX Boris Karloff, Julissa, Andres Garcia, Jack Hill; D: Juan Ibanez.

Dance of Death

views updated May 14 2018

Dance of Death. See (1) Danse macabre; (2) Totentanz.