The Dance of Death is an artistic motif originating in the Middle Ages, that speaks to the fleeting nature of life and the futility of accumulating earthly riches and power. It is a powerful lesson about life and death that resonates even to this day.
In time, the Dance of Death entered the cultural vernacular of people in the Middle Ages, and began to influence other forms of expression, notably drawings and paintings. Symbolical and allegorical scenes from the Dance of Death began to be painted on the walls of churches and cemeteries as a reminder to parishioners tha they had best heed the teachings of the Church before it was too late. The motif later found a fertile ground in paintings and book illustrations. Chief among these illustrators and painters was Hans Holbein whose paintings depicting the Dance of Death are recognized as masterpieces. Other notable artists who have depicted the dance of death include Thomas Rowlandson, who modernized it with scenes of English life in the 18th century, and Michael Wolgemut, who is noted for his woodcuts.
The prevalence of the Dance of Death as a cultural motif and allegory reached the height of its popularity during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, likely spurred by the uncertainty of life at the time, when plagues and wars made life extremely precarious. However the dance of death has remained a powerful allegory, and many of its central images have been woven into modern pop culture including music and movies.
The earliest roots of the dance of death are obscured by time. However historians believe that its origins can be traced back to the introduction of Christianity into the Germanic areas of Europe. When the introduction of Christianity first banished the ancient Germanic conception of a future state, a new description of death-mythology arose, partly out of biblical sources, partly out of the popular character itself, wherein the Death personified was represented with images familiar to the commin people. Examples included a gardener pulling weeds from his garden or a woodsman felling trees. More striking imagery at this early period included a farmer sowing his field with corpses or a king assembling his armies to wage war.
But with the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and a change in the national psyche, came a corresponding change in how the Dance Macabre was treated in art and culture. There was now an empjasis on associating the motif with day to day scens and subjects including festivals and dancing. This tendency to familiarize the theme increased during the confusion and turmoil of the 14th century, when the national mind alternated between fits of devotion and license, or blended both elements in satire and humor. Such a mood as this naturally occupied itself with personifying death, and adopted by preference the most startling and grotesque images it could find that of a musician playing to dancing-men, or a dancer leading them on; and as the dance and the drama were then intimately connected, and employed on religious occasions, this particular idea soon assumed a dramatic form.
Updated: May 16, 2020