Dresden's dance of death, The Verses

The dance of death in Dresden - something new has been added
Dresden, Dresden

Dresden's dance of death differed from other dances of death in that there was no dialogue between Death and each victim. This may, of course, be a consequence of the fact that the work was situated on the third floor.

This changed in 1721 when the dance of death was moved to the Alt-Dresden Cemetery. Now the dance had come down to eye level, and verses were added by Pastor Hilscher (pictured right).

The verses can be read in a small brochure / tract published the same year: "Kurtze Nachricht von dem am Gottes-Acker zu Alt-Dreßden befindlichen Todten-Tantze" (see external link), but here Hilscher does not say that it is he who is the author; only that "someone" has provided the work with rhymes:

To teach the simple-minded the meaning of such an ancient and edifying monument all the more easily, one has considered it serviceable to add a number of rhymes directed towards it.

Therefore these words can be read at the beginning:(1)

Then came the new introduction:

Wenn du kömmst, und wenn du gehest,
Wo du bist, und wo du stehest,
Dencke, daß du sterben must!
When you come and when you go,
Where [ever] you are and where you stand,
Consider that you must die!

The thing was, Hilscher had had to fight hard: First to get the dance of death handed over by the prince-elector, and afterwards to find the many monies in the church coffers to pay for having the work embedded into the cemetery wall, to replace the 4-5 missing figures and to have the colours refreshed.

But at the same time Hilscher also had to fight against his own congregation, who here — after the Reformation — were unsure about this "Papist" work, which showed the pope as the foremost man on earth.

When George the Bearded had built his castle in 1534-1537, the Reformation was in its infancy. Georg himself was a good Catholic, he had received training in theology, was even appointed as a canon, and was concerned about the division which Luther's teachings could entail. Now, almost 200 years later, the situation was quite the opposite: the Reformation had been introduced long ago, but many Christians — including Hilscher — saw signs of budding relapse into Papism in many places.

Hilscher, for his part, argued that there was nothing "Papist" about a frieze, which showed the pope and his clergy leading all of humanity directly into the depths of hell.

To address the concerns of the congregation, he made sure that his new text explained that the pope was going to die because no one liked him, and that the image of the pope was there only so that no one would forget how bad he had been.

Komm, alter Vater, komm, ich muss dich nur begraben,
Weil dich die Leute hier nicht gerne wollen haben;
Daß aber deiner nicht so gar vergessen sey.
Stehst du im Bildnis da, mit deiner Clerisey.
Come on, old father, come on, I just have to bury you,
because the people here don't like you;
But in order that you will not be completely forgotten,
you are standing there portrayed with your clergy.

Thus the message was that one should not think that the pope and his clergy were more important just because they were at the forefront of the dance. In the rest of the work, Hilscher emphasized (with Death as his mouthpiece) over and over again that all people are equal in Death.

To emperor, king, princes, counts and knights:

Der Kayser folget mir samt allen Potentaten,
Kein König thut mirs gleich an Ruhme, und an Thaten
Der Fürst, und Grafe stirbt, es stirbt der Ritters-Mann,
Weil niemand, wer er sey, sich mein erwehren kan.
The emperor follows me with all potentates;
no king equals me in fame, nor in deeds.
The prince and count die, the knight dies,
because no one, whoever he may be, can defend himself against me.

To the nobleman, the councilor, the craftsman, soldiers, peasants and cripples:

Ihr seyd hier alle gleich! Wenn einer wär von Adel,
Ein Raths-Herr bey der Stadt, ein Meister ohne Tadel.
Soldat, und Bauers-Mann, ein Mann mit einem Bein,
Noch muß er in Person mit an den Reigen seyn.
You are all the same here! If one were of nobility,
one [were] councilor in the city, [and one] a master without blame.
Soldier and farmer, a man with one leg;
he still has to be in this dance in person.

To abbess, noblewoman and peasant woman. Together with the young man, child and old man:

Und ihr solt auch mit dran! Kein Weib aus allen Ständen
Wird mir an diesem Tantz entwischen aus den Händen.
Der junge Mann muß fort, das Kind, der alte Greis,
Weil man an diesem Ort von Unterscheid nichts weiß.
And you should also come along! No woman from all classes
will slip out of my hands at this dance.
The young man has to go, the child, the old man,
because there is no difference in this place.

And finally: Everyone will end up in the same grave.

So wird eines nach dem andern
Hin zu seinen Grabe wandern,
Biß wir endlich alle seyn.
So will one after the other
wander to his grave,
until finally we all will be [there].

But Hilscher was only partially successful in his struggle. He had originally intended for the frieze to be mounted on the wall of the sacristy, but even with his new text, the congregation were not about to admit this "Papist" work into consecrated ground. The frieze was instead imbedded into the outside of the cemetery wall.

The alternative version

The dance of death in Dresden - the emperor and the nobility
Dresden, Dresden

The work of renovating and setting up the dance in the new place was completed on November 5th, 1721, but already a few weeks later, when the paint was hardly dry, November 30th, 1721, a variant emerged that regularly creeps into the written sources.

Iccander (i.e. Johann Christian Crell) wrote a letter with a description of the newly mounted work of art. The description of the individual dancer sounds as if Iccander has read Hilscher's books, but when it comes to the verses, there are many deviations: "nur begraben" / "nun begraben", "nicht gerne wollen" / "nicht länger wollen", "gar vergessen" / "ganz vergessen", "samt deiner Clerisey" / "mit einer Clerisey", "Es wird eines" / "So wird eines" etc.

One of the verses is completely different, namely, the words to the emperor:

Der Kayser folget mir samt allen Potentaten,
Kein König thut mirs gleich an Ruhme, und an Thaten
Der Fürst, und Grafe stirbt, es stirbt der Ritters-Mann,
Weil niemand, wer er sey, sich mein erwehren kan.
Ich bin viel mächtiger, denn alle Potentaten,
Der Käyser selbst erschrickt vor meinen grossen Thaten.
Kein König, Fürst und Graff, bis auff den Ritters-Mann,
Ist so behertzt, daß er mir widerstehen kan.

But the stay at this cemetery did not last long. Ten years later it was moving day once again.

Gå fremad

The next chapter in the series is about the many relocations.

The previous chapter was about the dance of death after the fire.

External links

Footnotes: (1)

Translation of: "Den einfältigen die bedeutung solches alten und erbaulichen Monuments desto leichter beyzubringen, hat man vor dienstlich angesehen, etliche dahin gerichtete Reime beyzufügen. Denn da sind bey dem Anfange dessen die worte zu lesen:"

See external link.