The Dance of Death, or danse macabre, emerged as a literary and pictorial theme in Europe in the late medieval era. Combining powerful imagery with poetry, skeletons prance amongst a host of figures from all walks of life and invite them to partake in the inevitable, final dance. In this illuminating and engrossing book, Elina Gertsman charts the emergence and flowering of the danse macabre in the fifteenth century by examining large-scale wall paintings in churches and cemeteries across Europe, and concludes by reflecting on the transformation of the theme in the sixteenth century, in Hans Holbein the Younger’s print series Les simulachres & historiees faces de la mort. The author is concerned throughout with developing a reception theory for the images, which is skilfully achieved through a combination of rigorous pictorial analysis, sensitivity to the specifics of location and a thorough examination of the accompanying texts in their original languages. The third volume in Brepols series Studies in the Visual Cultures of the Middle Ages, the book is well illustrated throughout and includes an appendix of four selected Dance of Death texts additional to those discussed in the chapters as well as an index of Dance of Death characters, making it a useful volume for art historians and literary scholars alike.
Gertsman adopts an interdisciplinary approach to examine the relationship between the image, text and viewer of the Dance of Death within the broader theological, socio-historical and cultural framework of the fifteenth century. The book opens by exploring the emergence of the macabre and other related iconographies in the fifteenth century. Like the Dance of Death, the popular legend of ‘The Encounter of the Three Living and the Three Dead’ and medieval transi tombs also paired idealised, living figures with dead or decaying corpses. An exploration of these forms provides an introduction to some of the cultural precedents and philosophical difficulties involved in representing death. Sermons, visionary writings, folk legends, documents and treatises on dance are then woven together in discussion of the interconnected notions of dancing and death. The author contrasts the jerky, grotesquely alive movements of Death with the refined, statuesque movements of its victims to develop the theory that Death’s victims are already luminal creatures, and concludes with interesting evidence that the Dance of Death was actively performed, as well as pictured, during the Middle Ages.
The author’s key example, and the focus of the book, is a Dance of Death painted on canvas by Bernt Notke in the late fifteenth century for the Church of Saint Nicholas in Reval, Livonia (modern-day Tallinn, Estonia). The output and reputation of the Lübeck painter and sculptor Bernt Notke have recently been reassessed (see the review of Peter Tångeberg’s 2009 book in this issue) but for Gertsman he remains a pivotal figure. Although the Reval Dance is now a fragment of canvas picturing only the first thirteen of an original cast of about fifty figures, its good condition coupled with the survival of its text enables Gertsman to use it as matrix for the reading of similarly conceived Dances of Death which have since been lost or destroyed. These include a sister work also by Notke executed on panels for the Beichtkapelle of Saint Mary’s church in Lübeck, Germany, and preserved in a seventeenth-century copy and a Dance of Death painted in an arcade in the Cemetery of the Innocents in Paris, preserved in woodcuts printed by Guyot Marchant. One of the highlights of the study is Gertsman’s compelling analysis of the relationship between text and image in the Reval Dance. Taking the form of highly-charged, individual dialogues inscribed in Low German on banderols beneath the procession, Death’s words frequently ridicule the pretensions and ambitions of the individuals pictured, who writhe, beg and exclaim in anguish as they discover that regardless of their worldly status they cannot escape Death’s bony grasp. Gertsman’s translation of the texts certainly enhances our appreciation of the images, but it is unclear how many of Notke’s original viewers would have been able to read and understand them. Examining the economic status and layout of the bustling trading port of Reval, as well as the many functions of the Church of Saint Nicholas, the author suggests that the Dance would have been seen by a diverse cross-section of society, including merchants, artisans, council members and noblemen, who would have possessed varying degrees of literacy.
Even without access to the verse, Gertsman argues that the Reval viewer would have responded to other elements of the painting. These include the figure of the Preacher, who opens the dance by introducing the long procession of familiar characters and recalls aural traditions by reminding the beholder in the manner of a sermon that all are equal in the eyes of God. The portrayal of dancing is another aspect of the image which speaks volumes, with the life-size cavorting skeletons providing devilish and menacing opposites to the Preacher’s composure. Unusually, the background of the Reval Dance is not a generic meadow but a specific, detailed view of a Hanseatic cityscape in miniature. This serves to both anchor the didactic procession firmly in the realm of the recognizable and to suggest that the participants in the dance, who loom at eye level beseeching the viewer, have already left the city behind as they enter into a different space. Confronting their painted doubles in this dramatic way, and reminded by Death and the Preacher of the role of repentance in salvation, the author surmises that the powerful message of the Reval Dance would have been understood by lettered and unlettered viewers alike. Three more fifteenth-century danse macabre murals offer permutations of the Reval iconography intertwined with other visual narratives, including devotional images of Christ on the Cross and the Fall of Man. The murals are all in churches in France and Germany: in the Benedictine abbey church of La Chaise-Dieu in the Auverge, the small church of Meslay-le-Grenet in Eure-et-Loire, and in the belfry tower of Saint Mary’s in Berlin. Again, attending to factors such as the location of the churches and the interplay between image, text and architectural space leads to a sensitive exploration of the murals and their viewers.
Neither narrative nor conventional iconic paintings, fifteenth-century Dances of Death were characterised by where they sat at the intersection of visual imagery, vernacular literature and pastoral theology, eliciting active participation from the viewer. This was achieved through means as varied as drawing on the performance of liturgical rites and the received wisdom of sermons, to confronting and enveloping the viewer with a sense of scale, movement and depiction of recognizable characters and landscapes. Such active participation was to ebb away in the early-modern era. Artists such as Niklaus Manuel Deutsch and Simone Baschenis introduced new characters to the familiar cast of protagonists and conflated danse macabre imagery with other biblical narratives.
Even more fundamental than this were the changes that took place in the format of danse macabre imagery in the sixteenth century. In place of the solemn, continuous procession of life-size figures, the danse macabre was shrunk, to be used as a decorative scheme to adorn secular, utilitarian objects including chests and sword sheaths, or serialized in individual prints, the best known being Holbein’s woodcut series Les simulachres & historiees faces de la mort (1538). Created specifically for the book format, in Holbein’s Simulachres the original danse macabre imagery is embedded within biblical narratives of the Creation and Fall of Man, and each engraving is made to stand in its own right. The visual continuity of the Dance is disrupted. Unlike their medieval counterparts, Death’s victims here are not lined up against a homogenous backdrop but caught dramatically in midst of their everyday activities. Death no longer dances, but instead swoops in theatrically to seize its victims, and is often caught in the act by onlookers. Some witnesses are horrified by the appearance of the skeletons, others leap forward to defend Death’s victims, others ignore the commotion; but all of the incidental figures create a distance between the viewer and reader, who is rendered a passive witness to the scene. In Holbein’s small scenes death is intimately and dramatically personified, but the sixteenth-century viewer is a spectator rather than a participant. As Gertsman convincingly argues, by this time the equalising nature of Death and the performative aspects of the Dance which made the medieval wall paintings so powerful had been lost.