The dance of death was carved in sandstone. The work measures 1.22 meter in height and 12.47 meters in length.
According to old witnesses, the 27 figures are distributed on nine plates, mostly with three on each. Th. Erbstein wrote: »auf neun Platten 27 halberhabene Figuren« (page 50), and his article from 1842 is illustrated with the etching to the left, which clearly shows the nine sections.
Eduard Flechsig wrote: »Der Totentanz ist in Sandstein gehauen und besteht äusserlich aus neun einzelnen Platten« in 1900 (page 49 bottom, top 50), and documented his description with five photos (to the right).
Erstein and Flechsig have studied the frieze meticulously, while it was down in eye level, but on the other hand, a lot of mortar has since been removed, which had covered damages through the centuries.
According to German Wikipedia there are ten plates, so let us go throught the frieze.
Death starts the procession with his fife, just like the pied piper from Hamelin and Death from Lübeck. In the other hand, he raises an hourglass or maybe it's a wine glass.
According to Weck's drawing from 1680 he has a kind of turban on his head and two ribbons around his legs. Later drawings show that the "turban" is in fact a brush of hair on top of the skull, and that the two bands are snakes.
The first dancer is, as always, the pope with the triple cross and the triple crown.
Here in Dresden the clergy appear separated from the secular, as they also do in Berlin, so the next dancer is the second highest clergyman: a cardinal.
The two next (picture to the right) are sometimes interpreted as archbishop and bishop — and sometimes as bishop and abbot.
The third clergyman with a book under his arm is undoubtedly a canon. This can be seen by his almuce, a cape of fur adorned with animals' tails, just like the canon is in Holbein's great dance of death, Basel and Holbein's initial L.
In Paris' danse macabre, Death mentions the »a[u]musse grise« (grey almuce) of the canon; in London's dance of death, Death mentions the canon's »Amys of gris« (i.e. almuce of grey [fur]), and in Copenhagen's dance of death, Death makes a comment on the canon's »grey fur cloak« — presumably a cloak that's furred with grey fur.
The clerical row ends (left) with the Catholic priest with a stole about his neck and a cross in his hand (perhaps a monstrance?) — and a monk with a heavy book.
This plate differs from the others by containing only two figures.
According to Weck's drawing of the castle, all seven clergymen (Weck had eight of them) were located together to the left of the bay window, but according to "Saxonia Numismatica", the bay window was placed between the sixth and seventh figure: »Zwischen der sechsten und siebenden Figur steiget der Ercker von unten auff vollends unter das Tach / und präsentiret vier in Stein schön gehauene Bildnisse / deren vornehmstes Herzog Georgens selbst […]«. That is, the priest and the monk were separated from the other clergy by the bay window.
After the clergy come the long line of laymen and women. Death takes the lead while beating the drums.
First comes, as always, the emperor, who can be recognized by his closed crown.
The next participant — with the open crown — is probably a king, but since this dance takes place in Saxony it might as well be a prince-elector.
There is no doubt that the duke is Duke George himself. Compare with the medal from the year 1537: Same hat and same beard.
The duke was a devout Catholic, was educated in theology, and was originally a canon. He is portrayed in the stone relief as well as on the medal with a rosary in his hand.
Both pictures also show him with a small lamb hanging in a chain around his neck, telling us that the duke was a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
This picture also enables us to date the frieze with greater accuracy. The construction began in 1534, and shortly after, the duke lost his daughter and immediately after his wife, Barbara. Ever since then, the duke stopped trimming his beard and was therefore nicknamed "the Bearded". Since the duke in the dance has roughly the same beard length as on the medal, which is from 1537, the stone relief must have been created closer to 1537 than 1534.
Afterwards follows a count with a hat, mustache and sword. One may speculate whether this was George's son Friedrich. George was concerned about the division that might result from Luther's teachings. He did his best to retain the power over Saxony in the Catholic hands of his family, but both his son-in-law Philipp von Hessen(1) and his brother Heinrich had passed over to the Reformers.
In 1537, George's son Johann died, and the only surviving male heir, Friedrich, became hereditary prince. Friedrich was mentally handicapped, but George hoped through Friedrich to have heirs, who could carry on the family. However, this was not to be: Friedrich married in January 1539, he died in February, and Duke George himself died in April of the same year.
In the drawing, it appears that Friedrich (supposing it is him) has the same golden lamb hanging around his neck as George.
The third person on this plate is a knight with a plume on his head, armor and a large sword. According to German Wikipedia, the knight is one of the five figures that had to be replaced in 1721 after the work was taken down from Duke George's castle.
Today when the frieze has been cleaned of centuries of paint and mortar (to the left), there is a visible separation between the count (Friedrich?) and the knight. This crack doesn't seem to be there by design, partly since it's not vertical, and partly since it destroys the count's cloak and the knight's arm.
The next three are interpreted as nobleman, councilor and craftsman.
The craftsman carries a pickaxe and a protractor, and he is protected by a large apron. One might wonder if the sculptor of this stone bas-relief has made a self-portrait here.
Then comes soldier, peasant and cripple. The soldier carries his sword and a battle axe over his shoulder. In Hilscher's drawing it is a halberd.
The farmer carries a tied-up flail and a short sword. He is followed by the cripple on his crutch.
Only one of the nine plates is dedicated to the women: Abbess, noblewoman and peasant wife.
Since the duke is a portrait of Duke George, it is conceivable that the noblewoman portrays his late wife, Barbara. However, this is pure speculation.
Hilscher's drawing shows clearly how two geese stick their heads out of the farmer's wife's sack.
The last plate is unusual in that there are four figures and not just three. This plate had to be replaced in 1721, probably because the original broke during dismantling from the castle.
In Weck's drawing from 1680 the first man is shown as an elderly crooked gentleman with a beard turning away from the child. Hilscher disagrees, and in Hilscher's drawing it is a younger beardless man. The drawing to the right clearly shows that he is carrying a bag of coins.
The man appears too late in the dance to be a usurer, so these three people are interpreted as "without condition": youth and wealth, childhood and old age.
In Weck's drawing from 1680, the old man holds a knife in his hand, but in Hilscher's drawing and everywhere else, it turns out to be a hat. The child and the old man are dressed in rags, so maybe they are begging from the rich man who is clutching his money sack?
In the end Death appears for the third time and finishes the dance with his big scythe.
There's a crack between the old man and Death, so maybe there are two plates instead of one plate with four figures? On the one hand, the crack is vertical to make a nice, clean separation, but on the other hand, the crack destroys Death's shrouds (both of them) and Death's elbow.
The next and final chapter takes a brief look at the artist.
The previous chapter was about all the relocations.
The only one of Duke George's 10 children to survive him was Christine von Sachsen, who married Philipp von Hessen. Their marriage was, to put it mildly, unusual.
Wikipedia tells the twisted story of Philipp von Hessen's bigamous marriage.