The dancing Death, an introduction

The grim reaper
The grim reaper

We all know what Death looks like: A skeleton hiding in a cowl - carrying the scythe that epitomises him: The Grim Reaper.

But there was a time when Death had flesh and skin - when he would sing, dance and play music, when he would reprimand the impious clergy, taunt the proud noblemen and comfort the poor peasant.

Plague doctor. The strange "beak" is full of fragrant herbs to protect the physician from infection and the stick is for poking the patient. With doctors like that you didn't need diseases.
Physician with mask

The Grim Reaper is not nearly as old as we normally think. The ancients had realms for the dead (like Hel and Hades) and gods responsible for these realms, but they did not have a concept of Death-as-a-person. With the advent of Christianity and Islam, death became nothing more than the waiting time before The Resurrection and was not really worth bothering with - artistically.

In the Late Middle Ages this would be changed by 3 factors: Purgatory, Penance and Plague:

This meant that people might die suddenly from the plagues, without possibility of the last Sacrament, and therefore would have to burn in Purgatory. To the ancients "memento mori" had meant, "enjoy life now" - but from now on it meant, "repentance and penance".

The Late Middle Ages are therefore characterised by entire genres in literature and painting being dedicated to death and dying - one of these genres was the Dance of Death.

Next: The dancing Death, part 2