The Dance of Death in Berlin

Berlin's dance of death
Berlin's dance of death

Augustin friar
Parish priest
Carthusian monk
Jesus on the cross
Young nobleman
Cook / fool

St. Mary's Church, August 2005
The Church of St. Mary in Berlin

Lübeck's dance of death was famous far abroad and inspired several books. To visit Lübeck's dance of death was a part of any educational travel (like those of Hans Christian Andersen and Thomas Nugent).

Berlin's dance of death was less famous. If fact, nobody even knew there was a dance of death - until 1860 when the fresco suddenly appeared under a layer of whitewash during repair of the wall.

The fresco has been restored several times since then - and attempts have been made to "improve" the fresco by painting it over. In 1955 the fresco was "de-restored" and all the unoriginal layers of paint were removed. This is one of the reasons why the fresco looks better on old photos (see the external links below) than it does today.

The painting is in a very bad condition and it has been necessary to protect it behind glass - in order to secure it against humidity and variation of temperature. In the photograph above, one can see how the dance of death continues on the wall in the background. The little castle is not a part of the dance of death - it's placed there because the room with its controlled humidity is also used as a workshop for restoring other objects of art in the church.

The dance of death, August 2003
Photo of the dance of death in Berlin

The photo to the right shows what the fresco looks like today. In general the red colours are best preserved - and the blue colours are the worst ones.

Compared to the masterpieces in Lübeck and Tallinn, the fresco in Berlin is far more primitive - with simple drawings made directly on the wall. This may seem odd today, but the reason is that back in 1470 Berlin was a very small town with less than 10,000 inhabitants. In contrast to this, Lübeck had more than twice as many inhabitants - and Lübeck, being the Queen of the Hansa, could afford to hire world famous artists (like Hans Memling) or local talent (like Bernd Notke).

As recently as in 1506, Abbot Johannes Trithemius declared that a truly learned person was as rare in the Berlin-area as a white raven.

The Unknown Painting

The beams from a stair had damaged the mural.
Lübke, Berlin

Almost nothing is known about the history of the painting. It was an unexpected surprise when the 22.6 meter long mural was discovered under the whitewash in the fall of 1860.

The next year Lübke pointed out that Douce had cited Misson for the existence of a dance of death in St. Mary's, but that even this hadn't given anybody reason to investigate: »Selbst der Umstand, dass Douce in seinem Werke p. 48 einen Todtentanz aufführt, der nach seiner Angabe von Misson erwähnt werde, hatte keine Veranlassung zum Nachforschen gegeben« and »kam der von Douce angezeigte, seit so langer Zeit verschwunden gewesene Todtentanz zum Vorschein«.(1)

And true enough, Douce writes: »Misson has noticed a Dance of Death in St. Mary's church at Berlin, and obscurely referred to another in some church at Nuremberg«.(2) It should be added that Douce had written something similar 40 years earlier, namely in his introduction to the 1794-edition of Hollar, although at that time he didn't specify his source: »[…] and in St. Mary's church at Berlin, these paintings were to be seen« (pp. 6-7).

Douce's note was also referred to as late as 1849 in a book about Holbein's dance of death alphabet, which in the preface included Berlin on a long list of cities where the dances of death were "partly insignificant, partly dubious and mostly no longer existing".(3)

Neither Lübke, Prüfer(4), Langlois(5), Fortoul(6), Russell Smith(7) nor Peter Walther(8) were able to confirm the existence of such a quote in Misson's work. But Douce was right: Misson had indeed mentioned the dance. After having described the "Dance of the Deceased" in Basel, Misson went on to say: »We are inform'd by Stow, that there was such a Dance at S. Paul's London, before that Church was consumed by the Fire (in the Year 1666.) and I have seen the like at Berlin in S. Mary's Church«.(9) If Misson (1650-1722) had seen the mural himself, then it couldn't have been whitewashed during the Reformation. A better guess then would be that it happened much later at the great renovation in 1729.

Another witness was Jacob Schmidt, who in 1729 wrote that the dance of death to the left of the entrance had been covered with whitewash during a restoration, and because nobody had noted the figures and the verses, the work had to be counted among the "res deperditas" (lost things): »den Todten-Tantz […] ist bey der Renovirung der Kirchen mit Kalck überstrichen, und also wo ihn nicht jemand mit seinen Figuen und alten Verschen abgeschrieben unter die res deperditas zu zehlen«.(10)

The most recent witness to the disappeared mural must be Thomas King, who in his "Study-book of Medieval Architecture & Art" from 1857/1858(11) mentions the dance amongst several other lost dances: »There were also Dances of Death at St. Paul's in London, at Minden, Amiens, Leipsic, Dresden, Meissen, Anneberg, Berlin, Vienna, Nuremberg, and at the Augustinian Convent at Erfurth«. This text was repeated in the 1868-version and again in 1893 — i.e. 33 years after the lost painting had been rediscovered.

The age of the painting is even more unknown. The mural resides under the tower, and a notice from 1490 refers to the tower as being new and not yet finished. This might only refer to the spire, but it still indicates that the mural could at most be a few decades older than 1490.

The Discovery of the Mural

The mural was accidentally discovered under the whitewash in the fall of 1860. The art historian Wilhelm Lübke (1826 - 1893) worked the following winter investigating the painting and registering the text.

The winter was unusually hard and in his memoirs Lübke calls this work "probably the hardest I've ever undertaken". Every morning he would drive to the church in overcoat, plaid and thick felt shoes. Hardly had he applied the sponge with hot water on the inscriptions before ice crystals were formed. Lübke calls it half a miracle that Death didn't on this occasion call him into the dance.(12)

Lübke was assisted by Hans Ferdinand Maßmann with translating the Low German text. Maßmann was the author of Litteratur der Totentänze (1841) and Die Baseler Todtentänze (1847). In spite of just having suffered a stroke, he participated in the work for several weeks in the bitter-cold winter. The young artist Rudolph Schick drew the painting in the scale 1:10, and the combined work of the three men was published in 1861 (see external link).

Rudolph Schick's lithograph shows that the mural was damaged at the beginning. The curate was totally obliterated.
The start of the dance of death in Berlin

The following year the painting was restored by Fischbach from Düsseldorf, who with loose hand and imagination added the parts of the mural that had perished. For instance, the curate and the Death on both sides had almost disappeared. Fischbach also fixed up the text — presumably with a little help from Lübke's book.

The next one to appear was Theodor Prüfer, who made the lithographs that I use on the twenty eight pages in this section. These lithographs are thus based on Fischbach's heavy-handed restoration. The result is sometimes amusing, like when Prüfer praises the most derisive grimaces of Death, that all are designed markedly different. From this, Prüfer concludes that the artist could not have been without merit.(13) The only problem is that Lübke had informed us — before the restoration — that the characters were all simple shapes without shadows and with little indication of details, which in many places had lost much in terms of clarity — especially the figures of Death in the upper parts and especially in the heads, which could only be seen with great difficulty.(14)

Prüfer copies the mural after Fischbach's restoration. Now there is a curate, which must have been invented by Fischbach.
Berlin #1

Prüfer was an architect and could inform his readers that the mural was 22.676 meters long and 1.988 high. This was quite an impressive precision — particularly when you consider that the mural twirls its way over several columns, and considering that the ending with mother and child had perished long before the discovery of the mural.

After this collaborative effort by art historian, dance of death expert and architect, you would think the final word had been said. But in 1895 Wilhelm Seelmann wrote an article in Jahrbuch des Vereins für niederdeutsche Sprachforschung, where he didn't pull his punches: Lübke, Maßmann and Prüfer had no knowledge about Low German, and they had committed so many blunders that he (Seelmann) couldn't even be bothered to point out all of them.

The mural had been restored once again in 1892/93 — this time the fool and the landlady had been invented/completed. At the same time, a wall had been constructed between the entrance hall and nave, thus destroying the right half of the fool along with the last scene.

Seelmann was also the genius behind the theory that Dodendantz from 1520 should be older than Des dodes dantz from 1489, but in the Berlin case it would appear he was right: Seelmann's text is pretty close to the text that today is considered the best. One of the marked differences he introduced was that Jesus' 8 lines were rearranged so he got 12 lines like all the other dancing couples.

The Dances of Death in Lübeck and Berlin

The dance of death in 1936
Berlin, The dance of death in 1936

Berlin's dance of death is thought to be from 1470. This makes it slightly younger than the dance of death in Lübeck. Therefore it's assumed that the painting in Berlin is inspired by the one in Lübeck.

One of the few examples is the merchant, who in both dances is sad that he hasn't cleared his accounts: »Mine Rekenscop is nicht klar« (Lübeck) and »doch is myne rekenschop noch gar unclar« (Berlin)

The other example I know of is when Death calls the Pope an earthly father who has stood in God's stead:


Al hevestu in godes stede staen
Een erdesch vader [...]



Pawes erdescher vader [...]
gy hebben in der stede gades ghestan

On the other hand there's a close relationship between Berlin's dance of death and Dodendantz, so this merits its own page.

The dance of death in Berlin, Part 1The dance of death in Berlin, Part 2The dance of death in Berlin, Part 3The dance of death in Berlin, Part 4The dance of death in Berlin, Part 5The dance of death in Berlin, Part 6The dance of death in Berlin, Part 7The dance of death in Berlin, Part 8
Click to see pictures and text.


External Links

St. Mary's Church, August 2009

St. Mary's Church, Berlin St. Mary's Church, Berlin St. Mary's Church, Berlin

Related information:

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14)

Der Todtentanz in der Marienkirche zu Berlin by Wilhelm Lübke, 1861, page 6.
The Dance of Death by Francis Douce, 1833, page 48.
Hans Holbein's Initial-Buchstaben mit dem Todtentanz: nach Hans Lutzelburger's Orig.-Holzschn. im Dresdner Kabinet, 1849, pp 90-91:

»Hinsichtlich der theils unbedeutenden, theils zweifelhaften und meistens nicht mehr vorhandenen Todtentänze in Leipzig, Annaberg, Nürnberg, Amiens, Rouen, Fescamp, Blois, Strassburg, Vienne, Berlin, Wien, Haag, Burgos, Neapel, London, Salisbury, Wortley Hall, Hexham und Coydon, genüge es auf Peignot und Douce hinzuweisen«.

A footnote refers to Douce pp. 44-55.

Der Todtentanz in der Marien-Kirche zu Berlin und Geschichte und Idee der Todtentanz-Bilder überhaupt by Theodor Prüfer, 1883:

»[…] Douce in seinem Werke über die Todtentänze aus dem Jahre 1833 erwähnt einen Todtentanz in der hiesigen Marienkirche, wobei er freilich sich fälschlich auf ein Reisenwerk von Misson beruft, in dem ein solches Citat vergebens gesucht wird.« (page 1)

Essai historique, philosophique et pittoresque sur les danses des morts by Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois, 1852.

»Berlin. - M. Douce (p. 48 ) a mentionné, d'après Misson (Nouveau Voyage d'Italie), une Danse sculptée qui aurait existé dans l'église de Sainte Marie de Berlin. Mais nous avons parcouru en vain tout l'ouvrage de Misson sans rencontrer cette mention« (page 224).

Both Lübke and Prüfer refer to Langlois, so it's an open question whether they themselves had checked Misson's works.

Hippolyte Fortoul:

»Qu'on juge de la date des autres par l'époque certaine de celle-là. M. Douce a écrit qu'il y avait à Berlin, dans l'église Sainte-Marie, une Danse des Morts que j'y ai vainement cherchée«.
(La Danse des morts dessinée par Hans Holbein, gravée sur pierre par Joseph Schotthauer, 1842, page 99)

John Russell Smith:

»The painting in the church of St. Mary, at Berlin, mentioned by Douce on the authority of Misson, M. Fortoul says, has been sought for in vain«.
(Holbein's dance of death : with an historical and literary introduction, 1849, pp. 30-31)

Smith quotes Fortoul, so he hasn't checked Misson himself.

Der Berliner Totentanz zu St. Marien by Peter Walther, 1997, page 85:

»1833, Francis Douce erwähnt den Berliner Totentanz, beruft sich jedoch auf eine Quelle, die keinen entsprechenden Hinweis enthält«.

A new voyage to Italy by Maximilien Misson, 1714, page 495.
»Nun wollten wir uns zur Thür, so die Glocken-Thür genannt wird, hinverfügen und zur linken Hand, wenn man zur Thür hineinkommt an der Kirchenmauer inwendig den Todtentanz ansehen. Allein dieser ist bei Renovirung der Kirchen mit Kalk überstrichen und also, wenn ihn nicht jemand mit seinen Figuren und alten Verschen abgeschrieben unter die res deperditas zu zählen« (volume 4).

Jacob Schmidt published his "Berlinische und Cöllnische Merk- und Denkwürdigkeiten" from 1727 - 1734. The issue was only 100 copies, but the information about the dance of death has been quoted several times. I quote from Seelmann's article in Jahrbuch des Vereins für niederdeutsche Sprachforschung, 1895, page 82.

Schmidt's work was reprinted in 1992 in 150 copies.

The study-book of Medieval Architecture & Art by Thomas Henry King (1822-1892). According to the title page the book is from 1857, but the plates are marked "London Bell & Daldy 1858".

The quote is from page 7 in the chapter about Lübeck. The 1868-version can be be read at Google Books and at Hathi Trust.

Wilhelm Lübke, Lebenserinnerungen, 1891, pages 344-345:

Der letzte Berliner Winter verging mir in einer anspannenden Arbeit. Es war in der Marienkirche ein Todtentanz aufgedeckt worden, ein Wandbild vom Ende des 15. Jahrhunderts, im Ganzen ziemlich wohl erhalten, besonders durch ausführliche gereimte Beischriften von großem Interesse. Ich unternahm es, dies ausgedehnte Werk sorgfältig zu untersuchen und in einer umfangreichen Publikation vollständig herauszugeben. Diese Arbeit war wohl die anstrengendste, die ich je unternommen habe. Es galt nicht bloß das Bild zu prüfen, wobei der liebenswürdige Maler Schick mir behilflich war, sondern namentlich auch den höchst ausgedehnten, vielfach undeutlich gewordenen Text durchzuzeichnen. Viele Wochen hindurch mußte ich jeden Morgen, in einer Droschke wohlverpackt in Ueberzieher, Plaid und dicke Filzschuhe, den weiten Weg durchmessen, um Stunden lang in der bittersten Winterkalte zu arbeiten. Daß bei dieser Gelegenheit der Tod mich nicht selbst in seinen Reigen hineingezogen hat, war ein halbes Wunder. Der Frost war in jenem Winter so grimmig, daß, wenn ich mit einem Schwamm heißes Wasser über die Inschriften goß, im Augenblick sich dünne Eiskrusten auf der Wand bildeten. Aber mit ungeschwächter Hartnäckigkeit, die vielleicht ein Erbtheil meines westfälischen Blutes ist, führte ich die Arbeit zu Ende. Der Todtentanz (erschienen in der damal. Riegel'schen Buchhandlung) wurde für Berlin mein "Schwanengesang". Da die Entzifferung des Textes außerordentlich schwierig war, so erbat ich mir Professor Maßmann's Hülfe, der dann auch die Güte hatte, mich dabei zu unterstützen.

Prüfer, page 11 left column: »Bemerkenswerth sind noch die meist höhnischen Grimassen der Tode, die aber alle wesentlich verschieden gebildet sind und schon deshalb in dem Verfertiger des Bildes keinen so ganz ungeschickten Künstler vermuthen lassen«.
Lübke, page 12: »Die Zeichnung der Gestalten, - einfache Umrisse ohne Schattenangabe mit wenig Faltenwurf oder andren Details - hat an manchen Stellen an Deutlichkeit viel verloren, namentlich sind die Gestalten des Todes in den oberen Theilen, zumal in den Köpfen nur mit grofser Mühe zu erkennen«.