A Brief History of the Danse Macabre

The Dance Macabre, or Dance of Death, is an idea that's been handed down for centuries. The image is of skeletons escorting people through death and to their final fate in the afterlife. The message is that no matter who you are in life, you will face death one day. While the dance has evolved over time, the message remains.  

Though a few earlier examples exist in literature, the first known visual Dance of Death comes from around 1424. It was a large fresco painted in the open arcade of the charnel house in Paris’s Cemetery of the Holy Innocents. Stretched across a long section of wall and visible from the open courtyard of the cemetery, the fresco depicted human figures (all male) accompanied by cavorting skeletons in a long procession. A verse inscribed on the wall below each of the living figures explained the person’s station in life, arranged in order of social status from pope and emperor to shepherd and farmer. Clothing and accessories, like the pope’s cross-shaped staff and robes, or the farmer’s hoe and simple tunic, also helped identify each person.

Located in a busy part of Paris near the main markets, the cemetery wouldn’t have been a quiet, peaceful place of repose like the burial grounds we’re used to today, nor would it have been frequented only by members of the clergy. Instead, it was a public space used for gatherings and celebrations attended by all sorts of different people. These cemetery visitors, on seeing the Dance of Death, would certainly have been reminded of their own impending doom, but would also have likely appreciated the image for its humorous and satirical aspects as well. The grinning, dancing skeletons mocked the living by poking fun at their dismay and, for those in positions of power, by making light of their high status. Enjoy it now, the skeletons implied, because it’s not going to last.

From there, the images spread all over Europe. Atlas Obscura traces the evolution of the Dance Macabre from the Paris fresco to David S. Pumpkins.


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