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Saturday morning quotes 5.37: Danse macabre

January 30, 2016


Media vita in morte sumus
(In the midst of life we are in death).

– attributed to Notker I of Saint Gall, died 912 AD.

The Danse macabre as representational art seems to have had its origins in what Barbara W. Tuchman called the calamitous 14th century, a time when the plague and constant war ravaged Europe.  Death was portrayed as a grinning and purposeful skeleton who summons people from all walks of life as they dance to their respective graves.  The foreboding theme as seen in surviving paintings, sculpture, woodcuts, stained glass and illuminations of manuscript books was initially standardized to represent the figures of a pope, emperor, king, child, and and a commoner, reinforcing a penitential lesson that all might understand—the notion of Death as the great leveler who touches all at his whim, and a grim reminder to live life today with an eye toward the hereafter.

“The origins of the danse macabre, or Dance of Death, are still obscure, but the popularity of this theme in the late Middle Ages and beyond is undeniable.  From the first half of the 15th century, it spread rapidly through European art, literature and drama.”

“The term danse macabre implies both dancing and music, and these were originally crucial ingredients.  Of course, there is a firm link between music and death that dates back to Antiquity.  Music often played a role in funeral rites, and musical instruments have been found in ancient tombs, presumably for use or entertainment in the afterlife.  Tales were also told of creatures who used music to lure the living to their deaths, from the sirens whom Odysseus successfully resisted, to the more modern legends of the Pied Piper and the Lorelei.”

“…Perhaps the most cynical picture of contemporary life can be found in Holbein’s woodcut series, which was designed in the mid-1520s during the artist’s stay in Basel, a city that once housed two famous danse macabre murals…Holbein does not present the theme as a continuous chain of dancers, but as a series of independent scenes in which Death surprises one victim after another; sometimes quite subtly, but often in a very violent manner…The nun is another target of Holbein’s irony: kneeling in her cell before a small altar, she ogles the handsome young man playing a lute while seated on her bed.  Her thoughts are clearly fixed on earthly pleasures, and she is blind to the fact that Death is about to snuff her candle.”

– Sophie Oosterwijk, “Of Corpses, Constables and Kings: The Danse Macabre in Late Medieval and Renaissance Culture”, The Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 157 (2004), 61-90.

“I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

– Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916

Since the close of the Victorian age, western culture has shifted focus away from family and familiar ritual and instead on attainment and acquisition, and we seem to have lost sight of the importance of rituals that help us accept and celebrate death and dying. Rather than accepting the inevitability of death, we are shocked and grief-stricken when touched by it.  The line that connects cause and effect is clearly drawn: There is little encouragement to embrace the inevitability of death today because our 21st-century consumer culture could not possibly be sustained if the population were mindfully focused on right livelihood and the hereafter.

The Danse macabre and Memento mori themes lived on through Elizabethan melancholy and the lachrymose but artful music of John Dowland. But the theme also found its way into traditional folk music and ballad-singing traditions.  A Conversation With Death is hauntingly sung by Lloyd Chandler (1896-1978), a Free Will Baptist preacher from Madison County, North Carolina, whose singing was captured on the the recording High Atmosphere, an important anthology of ballads and banjo tunes from Virginia and North Carolina collected by John Cohen in 1965.  A beautiful contrast to Chandler’s ballad is heard in the singing of Bessie Jones (1902-1984) whose stunning version, derived from African roots, is titled O Death.  Then there is John Fahey‘s 1964 recording, The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, which seems to be an ironic mashup of medieval macabre and American folk culture, themed and thumbed to an insistent alternating bass.

Death addressing All:
I call all and everyone to this dance:
pope, emperor, and all creatures
poor, rich, big, or small.
Step forward, mourning won’t help now!
Remember though at all times
to bring good deeds with you
and to repent your sins
for you must dance to my pipe.

– from Elina Gertsman, “The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn): The Preacher and His Audience”, Gesta, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003), pp. 143-159.

Lloyd Chandler, A Conversation with Death

Oh what is this I cannot see
With icy hands gets a hold on me
Oh I am Death, none can excel
I open the doors of heaven and hell

O Death, O Death how can it be
That I must come and go with thee
O Death, O Death how can it be
I’m unprepared for eternity

Yes, I have come for to get your soul
To leave your body and leave it cold
To drop the flesh from off your frame
The earth and worm both have their claim

O Death, O Death if this be true
Please give me time to reason with you
From time to time you heard and saw
I’ll close your eyes, I’ll lock your jaw

I’ll lock your jaw so you can’t talk
I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very hour come and go with me

O Death, O Death consider my age
And do not take me at this stage
My wealth is all at your command
If you will move your icy hand

The old, the young, the rich, the poor
Alike with me will have to go
No age, no wealth, no silver nor gold
Nothing satisfies me but your poor soul

O Death, O Death please let me see
If Christ has turned his back on me
When you were called and asked to bow
You wouldn’t take heed and it’s too late now

O Death, O Death please give me time
To fix my heart and change my mind
Your heart is fixed, your mind is bound
I have that shackles to drag you down

Too late, too late, to all farewell
Your soul is doomed, you’re summonsed to hell
As long as God in heaven shall dwell
Your soul your soul shall scream in hell.

– from “A Conversation with Death”, Journal of Folklore Research, Volume 41, Number 2, May-August 2004
pp. 125-126.

  1. Thank you for this post. I’m browsing Holbein’s woodcuts with great curiosity. Btw, Ford’s quotation is so embarrassing, I thought he was brighter…

    • Thanks for your comment, Bruno. Henry Ford was smart in the ways of business but not necessarily the sort of individual one wishes to lionize as a public figure. He had some very unpleasant opinions and, although he made it a point to pay his workers a living wage, it was not necessarily an egalitarian gesture. He wanted to guarantee that his work force would be able to buy his product so he could sell more motorcars, not because he loved humanity.

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