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Danse Macabre

The Danse Macabre or translated into English, the Dance of Death is a medieval allegory that reminded folk about memento mori.

Danse Macabre
Danse Macabre, anonymous woodcut in Guy Marchant editions, Paris, 1491 & 1492, London, British Museum

Danse Macabre

In Heidelberg’s university library, the world’s oldest woodcut shows it in all its glory. It dates to somewhere between 1455-1458.

It’s message is clear!

No matter our status in life, the dance of death unites us all. It depicts each rank in society, from the pope through to a child, walking with the dead into Hell.

I’ve included an extract of the text, Death to the Child: –

Crawl over here. You must learn to dance here.
Weep or laugh, I hear you just the same.
Even if you had the teats in your mouth
it wouldn’t help you in this hour.

Oh my dear mother.
A black man drags me away.
How can you leave me now?
Now I must dance and can’t yet walk.

Heidelberg’s Dance of Death 1455-1458

Sadly, at one time you could see a mural of it on a wall inside a charnel house within the Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris. Demolition of the wall took place in 1669.

Last but not least, the Danse Macabre popularity grew when played out in the streets of Germany and Spain. Due to the Black Death, it’s message was clear.

Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead

Finally, there is a legend of the three living and the three dead that is older than the Danse Macabre. It dates to the 13th century and survives due to its popularity in frescoes and murals.

Three young gentlemen on horses meet three cadavers who warn them of the following: –

What we were, you are;
what we are, you will be

Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead