The Dance of Death in Malmø

St. Petri in Malmø. The chapel is in the annex to the left of the entrance.
St. Petri in Malmø
The dance of death theme is repeated on grave slabs in the chapel. Unfortunately this slab is pierced by a gas pipe.
St. Petri in Malmø, Grave slab

Malmø is located in Scania, an area that traditionally was Danish but was lost to the Swedes. The Swedes consider St. Peter's church a sister church of St. Mary's Church in Lübeck. People in Lübeck, on the other hand, consider St. Peter's in Malmø to be one out of many daughter churches.

In St. Peter's church there used to be lots of frescoes from the 1400ies, i.e. while Malmø was still Danish. About 1850 the church underwent a severely brutal "renovation", where the plaster was knocked off all the walls, most of the woodworks was destroyed and the grave slabs that covered most of the church floor were dug up and broken.

Fortunately the so-called Krämarekapellet (= The Tradesmen's Chapel) was at this time used by the fire-corps for housing the fire-engine, and there was no access to the chapel from the church. For this reason the frescoes and grave slabs survived, and in this richly decorated chapel we get a glimpse of the cultural treasures that were destroyed.

Here one can see a dance of death with pope, emperor, bishop, king, queen and citizen. There have been some inscriptions but they are illegible now. The bishop and the king are fairly well preserved whereas the emperor is totally obliterated.

The dance of death is assumed to have been painted later than 1505 because the chapel also has a painting of St. George, which is a mirror-inversed copy of a woodcut by Dürer from that year. On the other hand the painting is hardly newer than 1527 — the year that the Reformation came to Malmø. Naturally the artist is unknown but a small shield on the wall contains a conjoined AV.

Doten dantz mit figuren, 1488
Doten dantz mit figuren
On these grave slabs large snakes are crawling on Death — just like they do on the mural.
St. Petri in Malmø, grave slab

Some of these informations are taken from "Döden dansar i S:t Petrikyrkan i Malmö" by Bengt Lindskog and Göran Nylander in Sydsvenska medicinhistoriska sällskapets årsskrift, 1973".

Lindskog & Nylander believe the mural is based on the dance of death in Basel, but this sounds improbable. In particular there's the technical problem that between 1505-1527 (when the mural is thought to have been painted) there were no books with depictions of the dance in Basel. The first mass-produced pictures of the dance in Basel were by Merian in 1621 — i.e. 100 years too late for Malmö.

If one has to make a guess about the source of inspiration, I would rather suggest Heidelberger Totentanz — also known as Doten dantz mit figuren (picture to the left). Partly because it was available in print no later than 1488, partly because it was popular (there are three exemplars on the Net), and partly because the cadavers have big snakes — like in Malmö, but as opposed to Basel. In passing we notice that the cadavers also have big snakes in the dance in Nørre Alslev.

Click on the six thumbnails for further information.

The dance of death in Malmø, part 1The dance of death in Malmø, part 2The dance of death in Malmø, part 3The dance of death in Malmø, part 4The dance of death in Malmø, part 5The dance of death in Malmø, part 6
The Tradesmen's Chapel in Malmø, click on each section for further details

Up to Dances of Death in Danish Churches