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What is the Danse Macabre?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 29 March 2014
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The Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, is an artistic theme, particularly in medieval art, in which a personified Death collects people from all walks of life. The people are typically shown as skeletons or corpses in a procession, usually dancing. Alternatively, the dance may be circular in formation, and the dancers may appear in their living form with skeletons as dance partners. The Danse Macabre, sobering but often darkly comic, makes the point that we are all equal in the grave. The theme of the Danse Macabre has been used since the 15th century in paintings, theatre, music, literature, and later in film.

The Danse Macabre was first used in illustrations to sermon texts in the early 15th century, and the earliest painting of the theme, a fresco in the Parisian cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents, dates from 1424. In these early examples, the Danse Macabre was used to present a moral message by reminding the audience of the vanity of earthly wealth, power, and beauty. The people typically portrayed in Danse Macabre paintings are chosen to be representative of such mortal glories: common elements are a king, a pope, a youth, a beautiful girl, and often a peasant, included to show that the others are no better than the lowliest of people in death.

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Many Medieval Danse Macabre paintings, especially large frescoes, also include a text depicting the dialogue between death and his victims. Similar dialogues were used as the text of medieval traveling plays, and books with Danse Macabre drawings and text date from the mid-15th century. Musical compositions inspired by the Danse Macabre include works by Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns.

The Danse Macabre allegory is typical of late medieval mores, which became very pessimistic and morbid as a result of the devastating epidemic of the 14th century. Known as the Black Death and commonly believed to have been caused by the bubonic plague, it claimed somewhere between 33 and 66 percent of the European population and made the survivors very aware of their mortality. Much of the art and music dating from this period deals with themes of death.

The word macabre, used to describe any morbid or death-related art or literature, is a reference to the Danse Macabre. Originally, the French term is believed to have been based on the Latin Chorea Machabæorum or "Dance of the Maccabees," supposedly referring to the grisly martyrdom of a family of eight described in the Biblical text 2 Maccabees.

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Discuss this Article

popcorn
Post 5

@animegal - I think that a lot of popular art forms have adopted the idea of The Dance Macabre into their creative workings to give us material that is dark and deals with death in way that lets us really see it as the equalizer it is.

Stephen King also wrote a non-fiction book with the same title, Danse Macabre, but he dealt more with what could be called "the psychology of terror" and how it works on a social level. I suppose that because Stephen King is so famous for frightening people with his horror novels that looking at death at the level of popular culture is a unique way to start traveling back through how it has been portrayed in history.

animegal
Post 4

The Danse Macabre was used as a title to one of my favorite books by Laurell K. Hamilton. It is part of her Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series that deals mostly with an alternate reality where vampires have rights and the general population is aware of their existence.

I always wondered what Danse Macabre actually meant so after reading the article I can see why Laurell choose that title. The novel deals with some interesting aspects of death, and what it means to be equal after you've passed away. I suppose when it comes to vampires The Danse Macabre has a pretty special meaning.

OeKc05
Post 3

I have an artistic friend who is a big fan of the Danse Macabre paintings. He agrees so much with the theme of equality in death that he has started his own series of paintings in that vein.

The scene is always modern day. His first painting of the series shows beautiful, rich Hollywood girls and guys dancing in a night club. Every person has a drink in their hand. He used highly transparent paint for the flesh and clothing, so you can see the skeleton painted underneath each body.

The second painting shows scantily clad dancers holding a pose. Between every living dancer is a skeleton dancer holding the exact same position.

StarJo
Post 2

I can’t even imagine the horror of living in a time of so much death. If that much of the population died, then probably nearly everyone who survived lost someone close to them, or even their entire family.

When someone I love dies, I become very absorbed with thoughts of death and the afterlife. Questions rule my mind, and I think about it so much that I forget to live my life for awhile. I have never painted any death scenes or written songs about death, but since people write or paint from the heart, I can see how that time period would have been filled with death.

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