The dance of death, After the fire

Hilscher, 1705. Design by Moritz Bodenehr
Dresden, Dresden

On March 25, 1701, Duke George's castle was ravaged by fire.

A few years later, in 1705, the local priest, Paul Christian Hilscher (1666-1730) published a book on dances of death: »Beschreibung Des so genannten Todten-Tantzes, Wie selbiger An unterschiedlichen Orten, Sonderlich an Hertzog Georgens Schlosse in Dreßden, Als ein curiöses Denck-Mahl Menschlicher Sterbligkeit zu finden« (see external link). As the title suggests, there was in particular a chapter on the dance at Duke George's castle in Dresden, and the book contained the image to the right by Moritz Bodenehr.

Unfortunately, Hilscher makes no attempt to tell about the extent of the damage — this has obviously been common knowledge among the citizens of Dresden. Apparently, the dance of death was still sitting in its place on the third floor, and Hilscher (or Bodenehr) has had to perform the drawing down from the ground, just like Weck's print from 1680.(1)

Hilscher's drawing corrects some of the mistakes made by Weck: The Death that starts the dance has a brush of hair instead of a turban, and the old man at the end has a hat in his hand instead of a knife. The dancers come in the right order and are (exaggerated) divided into groups of three, because the frieze consists of plates with three dancers on each.

In 1717-1719 the rebuilding of the castle started, and the dance of death apparently no longer was in line with the taste of the times. Pastor Hilscher had worked to take over the frieze, and in 1721, August II the Strong, elector of Saxony, handed over the frieze to the congregation of the Dreikönigskirche.

The red circle shows the old location. The blue circle shows the approximate location of the old Dreikönigskirche. Map from 1755

Hilscher then arranged for the dance to be imbedded into the outside of the wall of the cemetery of the Dreikönigskirche in Alt-Dresden.

The same year, 1721, he published »Kurtze Nachricht von dem am Gottes-Acker zu Alt-Dreßden befindlichen Todten-Tantze«. This "short notice" must rather be described as a brochure or tract: it contains the drawing at the top of this page, a single page on the history of the frieze, one and a half pages of verses that Hilscher had composed for the frieze, and three pages of "unrhymed rhymes" that have nothing to do with anything. The book was published again in 1723.

In 1723 Hilscher published the book »Beschreibung des so genannten Todten-Tantzes, Wie selbiger In Dreßden an Hertzog Georgens Schlosse, Als ein curiöses Denck-Mahl Menschlicher Sterbligkeit zu finden«. The title is almost the same as his book from 1705, and it is misleading since the frieze was no longer "zu finden" at the castle.

The book is largely a reprint of the chapter on Dresden and the text has not been updated since 1705. It would have been nice if some new information had been added — for instance an explanation of the broken figures.

Five of the figures had been broken — presumably during the dismantling — and were replaced by sculptor Johann Emanuel Brückner. One wishes that Hilscher had been a little more generous with the information, for though all agree that the last four (young man, child, old man, and Death) are newer copies, is it less obvious which figure was the fifth.

The last four figures are a copy from 1723
Dresden, Dresden

When the dance was moved to the cemetery it acquired new verses.

Gå fremad

The next chapter in the series is about the new verses.

The previous chapter was about Duke George's castle.

External links

Footnotes: (1)

I conclude that the dance has been reasonably undamaged in 1705, since Hilscher's drawing includes all 27 figures.

It was (as we shall see) only in 1723 that 4-5 figures were replaced — figures that probably broke during the dismantling.

Ergo, these 4-5 figures were not crushed — and thus not dismantled — in 1705.

The figures could also have perished under the fire itself, but then Hilscher would not have been able to draw them — and even rectify Weck for having drawn a knife in the hand of the old man.