Plague Art: Danse Macabre Through the Ages

Plagues and other periods of widespread hardship have inspired beautiful, satirical, and haunting artwork throughout history. The Black Death in particular spawned an artistic genre with themes that speak to the sentiments of the affected populace and persist to this day.

The Black Death (1347-1351) is the most deadly pandemic in human history, having killed hundreds of millions of people in Europe, Northern Africa, and the Near East. To make matters worse, there were new outbreaks of the plague in Europe every few years until the early 1900s. 550 years of such horrific disease coupled with frequent periods of wartime are bound to change citizens’ perspectives on mortality, which explains why danse macabre became so popular in the centuries following the initial pandemic.

Danse macabre (French for “dance of death”) refers to imagery depicting waltzing skeletons leading humans to their deaths. According to Bethany Corriveau Gotschall’s article, “A Brief History of the ‘Danse Macabre’,” the first known image of the genre appeared in a fresco in a Paris charnel house in the early 1400s. People of any class, from servants to Kings, are included, since all are equal in death. This lends a satirical element to the piece as the skeletons poke fun at the nobility’s status and reluctance to give up their riches.

As danse macabre gained popularity as the subject of frescos and murals throughout Europe, it inspired the most popular rendition of all — German printmaker Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death, a series of 57 woodcuts beginning with humanity’s first sin and ending with the Last Judgement. The woodcuts were released from 1523-1525, and re-released as a book 15 years later. Holbein depicts people of all social classes and all ages being led to their graves by skeletons, some more resistant than others. Along with dancing and playing instruments, the skeletons in Holbein’s interpretation also help to bring immoral individuals to justice, like promiscuous nuns and nobility who mistreat their servants.

The following are some of the woodcuts from Holbein’s Dance of Death:

Dance of Death 16 – The Nobleman
What does he think he’s going to do with that sword? Kill it?
Dance of Death 33 – The Old Man
The old man does not resist the skeleton as the Nobleman does. As Gotschall states in her article, “Unlike the rich and powerful, for whom Death represents a loss of status and wealth, the peasant finds relief in dying after a life of hard labor and exploitation.”
Dance of Death 35 – The Lady
I had to include this because the skeleton is absolutely jamming out.

Holbein’s Dance of Death inspired future artists to put their own spin on danse macabre and include skeleton figures to represent death in their other works. It even inspired musicians and composers, as evidenced by an 1874 orchestra piece by Camille Saint-Saëns called “Danse macabre in G minor, Op. 40,” which is considered one of his greatest masterpieces (I highly recommend taking a listen!). Walt Disney also made a short cartoon titled “The Skeleton Dance” in 1929, which is used in the background of the video for the 1996 Andrew Gold song “Spooky Scary Skeletons,” a Halloween favorite to this day.

The next time you see images of skeletons in pop culture, you have a nearly 700-year-old plague to thank.

Bonus current events note: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has not been going on for long, it has already influenced art (and certainly memes) and inspired housebound individuals to pursue more creative endeavors. For example, on Twitter, user danajaybein wrote a parody of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” about the novel coronavirus. I am interested to see the impact the current pandemic has on art in the future.

The beginning of user danajaybein’s masterpiece

— Sierra Grubb

4 thoughts on “Plague Art: Danse Macabre Through the Ages

  1. Hi Sierra!

    I really love this post! I went on a Maymester last year in Switzerland and Italy and one of the girls in my class did her final project on all of the pieces of art she came across in those countries that showed depictions of Black Death and it was super interesting! This topic is something I never would have thought of myself but it is kind of crazy how large of an impact current events and tragedies have on art. This post also reminds me of the book “The Book Thief” because the narrator is death. Although the narrator is not described as a skeleton, I think the use of death as a main character in a book surrounding Nazi Germany is extremely powerful.

    – Currie

    P.S. I love your haircut!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Currie,
    I know and love Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse macabre in G minor, Op. 40″ from 2010 Olympic figure skating champion Yuna Kim’s 2009 Worlds short program (highly recommend), but I had no clue it was inspired by a work of visual art, nor that it stemmed from the Black Death.

    One theme of Danse Macabre that intrigues me is the presence of class and social status. While all of the works you cited indicate that death equalizes all, I’m particularly fascinated by Holbein’s work, which suggests that class affects one’s attitude toward death. As more and more people grow disillusioned by celebrities’ responses to COVID-19, it’s apropos to know that pandemics have been generating social critique for centuries. Knowing that social inequities still persist in healthcare today may be disheartening, but it can also be encouraging to see that systems of power have shifted since the Black Death (however big or small those shifts are is up for debate). With that in mind, we can continue to fight for greater equity in healthcare and society in general.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Sierra,

    Thanks so much for this blog post. Seeing how much great artistic work was produced during periods of hardship like The Black Death, I guess there is always something positive to take out of situations of hardship like these. Beyond that, I think that the disruption of our normal routine caused by coronavirus has also given some of us the opportunity to take up passion projects and focus on producing things of artistic value. In that way, I’m kinda finding some solace in these uncertain times. I’m excited to see what works of art becoming representative of this moment in global history.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hey Sierra,
    I think this piece was very interesting in how it frames our current struggle with coronavirus. As you explain, out of struggle we often create our most impactful works. Hardships pass but the human creations of those times continue to exist through history. In this unique moment in modern human history, I think it is imperative as individuals that we use this time to create and explore, not just stay stagnant. Out of this hopefully, we can net be better off as a society through a re-exploration of the arts, technologies, etc.
    – Satya

    Liked by 1 person

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