The band consists of four skeletons performing on bagpipe, portative organ, harp, and small drum. The dancers move in a low, stately procession. It is clearly a ritualistic rather than a social dance. All the participants are following their leader—Death.
The Danse Macabre made its first appearance during the plague (Black Death) years of the fourteenth century. In Germany it was the Todtentanz; in Italy, danza della morte; and in England, the Dance of Death. In the Danse Macabre, the personified figure of Death led dancers in a slow, stately procession that was clearly a ritualistic rather than a social dance.
Danse Macabre images served several purposes, including to help people express and share their grief; to remind each other that death is not only inevitable, but also the great equalizer, claiming the high and mighty as well as the humble; and to provide the opportunity for indirect mastery. When vulnerable mortals could depict, narrate, and enact the Dance of Death, they gained a subtle sense of control. In fact, as the Danse Macabre became an increasingly familiar cultural element, the figure of Death was also increasingly subject to caricature. The resilient human imagination had made Death a character—often dignified, sometimes frightening, and, eventually, even comic.
The earliest known appearances of the Danse Macabre were in story poems that told of encounters between the living and the dead. Most often the living were proud and powerful members of society, such as knights and bishops. The dead interrupted their procession: "As we are, so shall you be" was the underlying theme, "and neither your strength nor your piety can provide escape." A haunting visual image also appeared early: the Danse Macabre painted on the cloister walls of The Innocents, a religious order in Paris. This painting no longer exists, but there are woodcut copies of early depictions of the Danse Macabre.
The origin of the term "macabre" has invited considerable speculation. Perhaps the best-founded explanation was that offered by the historian Phillipe Ariès. He noted that the Maccabees of the Biblical period had been revered as patrons of the dead. Macchabe became a folk expression for the dead body, and Ariès found that the term still had that meaning in the folk slang of the late twentieth century.
There is sometimes confusion between the grave and measured gestures of the Danse Macabre and the much more violent and agitated phenomenon known as either St. John's or St. Vitus' dance. Both phenomena appeared at about the same time, but could hardly be more different. The Dance of Death was primarily the creation of storytellers and artists and only secondarily enacted in performance. St. Vitus' dance was primarily a performance carried out often to the point of frenzy or exhaustion by masses of people joined in a circle dance. Interestingly, municipal officials recognized some value in these proceedings. Musicians were hired and instructed to play faster and louder. The fallen dancers were swathed and comforted until they recovered their senses. It was as though the delirious participants had cast out the devil or at least reduced the tension of those desperate years not only for themselves but also for the bystanders.
Danse Macabre images have continued to appear throughout the centuries, each generation offering its own interpretation. Striking examples include the German painter Hans Holbein's classic woodcuts, first published in 1538, and German artist Fritz Eichenberg's visual commentary on the brutality of more modern times, published in 1983.
Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death, translated by Helen Weaver. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Clark, James M. The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Glasgow, Scotland: Glasgow University Press, 1950.
Eichenberg, Fritz. Dance of Death. New York: Abbeville Press, 1983.
Holbein, Hans. The Dance of Death. New York: Dover, 1971.
Meyer-Baer, Kathi. Music of the Spheres and the Dance of Death. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.
Weber, Frederick Parkes. Aspects of Death and Correlated Aspects of Life in Art, Epigram, and Poetry. College Park, MD: McGrath, 1971.