The dancing death (part 2)

Tallinn's dance of death, part 1Tallinn's dance of death, part 2Tallinn's dance of death, part 3
Click the three pictures to go to Tallin's dance of death.

The dances of death were painted in hundreds of cities and they were monumental: The dancers were life-size and the paintings would be up to 60 meter long.

The painting above is from Tallinn, Estonia. Only 7 meters remain, but originally the painting was probably close to 30 meter long with 24 humans - each with one Death leading him in the dance. At the bottom of the painting are text scrolls with a rhyming dialogue between Death and the dying. So you might think of the painting as a large comic strip!

The dance starts with a preacher, telling the congregation (and the viewer of the painting) that the dance of death is a mirror of society:

Oh, rational creature, be you poor or rich.
See here the mirror, young and old,
and consider also, each of you,
that nobody can stay away,
when Death comes, as you see here.

Then follows Death - playing the bagpipes (how gruesome can you get). Death introduces the dance:

I call everybody to this dance
pope, emperor and all creatures,
poor, rich, great and small.
Step forward, because grieving doesn't help you!
Des dodes dantz, a book from 1489.
Death riding a lion

The rest of the dance consists of couples: Death drags away the pope, emperor, empress, king and so on - with representations from the entire medieval feudal society.

The clergy are accused of impiety and loose morals. The noblemen are reprimanded for not protecting the church against infidels and for being too hard on their subjects (the peasants). Indeed, the level of outspoken and direct criticism against the rulers is astonishing.

Notice that Death is not portrayed as a skeleton, but as an emaciated cadaver in a shroud. In the Middle Ages - with the church prohibiting dissection of corpses - the artist did not have sufficient knowledge about anatomy to paint skeletons in movement.

Next: The dancing Death, part 3


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