The Dance of Death in Erfurt

Death from Erfurt
Götz, Death

In this section:

Death
Actress
Dancer
Singer
Gipsy woman
Cook
Astronomer
Typefounder
Quack
Judge
Printer
Cooper
Miller
Potter
Wax trader
Wedding inviter
Children
Grave digger
Mountain man
Mayor
Musician
Queen
Empress
Emperor
Pope
Field watch
Civil servant
Old man
Painter
Lawyer
Merchant
Banker
Colonel
Soldier
General
Innkeeper
Apothecary
Physician
Count and countess
Young woman
Young man
Priest
Canon
Cardinal
Hunter
Student
Orphanage
Elector
King
Adam and Eve
Christ
Old woman
Inspectors
Drunkard
The text
J. D. Pohle
H. Kruspe
Max Götz
The text

One might argue that the dance in the orphanage in the old Augustine monastery in Erfurt was the largest in the world. It consisted of 56 separate paintings, each showing one or more life-size humans being confronted with one or more Deaths.

At any rate it was the dance of death that took the longest time to create. The first paintings were made in 1735, and even though most were finished by 1750, it took 60 years before the last one was added in 1795.

A Dance in a Good Cause

The head of the orphanage
Götz, Principal

The back story of the dance of death is as unusual as the size: The Augustinian monastery in Erfurt enjoyed many visits, partly because of their many rare Bibles, and partly because the curious guests wanted to see the cell in which Martin Luther once had lived as a monk.

The entrance to the many monastic cells was through the large hall, which had meanwhile become an orphanage, and visitors were often expected to be generous to the orphanage.

In 1735, the principal and six inspectors of the orphanage got a bright idea: To make the hall more see-worthy, and thus increase the number of generous visitors, they would adorn the hall with a picture gallery: a so-called "death dance", just like the famous dance of death in Basel. Paintings cost money, and many paintings cost even more money, but the idea was to have the citizens of Erfurt sponsor the individual paintings.

We do not know the exact wording of the appeal to the citizens, but the response has been a positive one. In the same year the citizens gave three paintings, the next year nine, and three more in 1737. The pictures were often copied from Count von Gottern's art collection, and the Count himself appears as a hunter.

As early as 1750 the collection had acquired 52 of the 56 paintings.(1) By this time, it had long since surpassed Basel with its 39 scenes.

Among the many prominent visitors was Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), who was rather unimpressed, both with regards to seeing Luther's monk cell (»We […] made duteous pilgrimage to the Augustine convent which Luther inhabited as a monk«), and to the dance of death:

The convent is now used as an Orphan-house. There is a gallery in it, with a strange series of pictures. Death is represented as coming upon men and women at all moments, during every occupation - the Beauty at her toilette - the Miser counting his money - the Hero in the hour of victory - the King on his throne - the Mother fostering her first-born - the Bride, proud in her husband. It is a strange idea: the pictures are badly executed enough, yet some are striking.(2)

The painter Samuel Beck
Götz, Painter

The many years also resulted in a very uneven production. There were many painters: Nöller, Schiller, Hartung, Wenzel, Bocklet, Fritsche of Leipzig, König and Heinsius. In three cases the painter is unknown.

However, by far the majority of the paintings were created by one man: Jakob Samuel Beck. He participated right from the start in 1735, when he painted the three first, and he painted himself as Death's victim in 1737 (picture to the left). Forty years later he painted the astronomer, which was to be the last painting (excepting a later group portrait of inspectors).

The associated text also varies. The initial plan might have been to make a dance "like in Basel" but this is hard to see in the end result. The fact is that the text to a high degree was inspired by Lübeck's "new" text from 1701. Often quotes or even entire verses are copied from Lübeck. The result is that the verses sometimes contradict the painting (see for instance the general and the children).

Kluge the merchant had himself sat for the artist and sponsored the paintintg.
Götz, Wax trader

Even when the text is not a copy of Lübeck's, it generally follows the same pattern: Each verse has 4 lines with six-footed Alexandrines. However, this pattern is not always followed: The quack's and graveyard digger's dialogues are reversed, so the human speaks before Death, and the latter of these two dialogues have shorter lines. The typefounder's dialogue consists of 6-lined verses, and the student's of 8-lined verses. At the end of the row come four group-pictures of orphanage inspectors, where any attempt of dialogue and dance of death has been abandoned.

The many sponsors are both a strength and a weakness. On the positive side, we get a varied insight into the city life, for many of the images represent the citizens of Erfurt, and many of these occupations are unknown from other dances: Cooper, miller, potter, wax trader, wedding inviter, grave digger, mountain man, field ranger, student, etc.

The other side of the coin is that many of the paintings were sponsored by family, friends or colleagues of the dear departed. For that matter the person didn't even have to be dead: For instance the wax trader was paid for by merchant Kluge, who himself sat for the artist.

The last four paintings are group portraits.
Götz, Orphanage

For this reason, the texts are typically kept in a positive spirit. The (social) criticism, moral outrage, rebukes, satire and irony that characterize the medieval dance of death is next to absent in Erfurt. Even the usurer, whom all other dances of death agree to condemn, has been turned into a banker, who gets the last word in his cheeky reply to Death.

This is especially true of the last four paintings in the series, which represent the inspectors of the orphanage. The charitable gentlemen are sitting around a table, with a child or two in front for appearances' sake, and Death is lurking in the corner, but there is not much dancing going on.

The self-praise reaches unprecedented heights, when Death in one picture praises the inspectors: »Many a haggard kid that I had already chosen / became nourished again and bloomed freshly«, while the inspectors in turn hope that »Maybe many people will still come up to our picture / and speak the names with love, thanks and blessings«.

The Sources

The orphanage burned down in 1872, and the dance of death perished. We have four sources:

  1. J. D. Pohle published a book about the origin of the orphanage in 1823. Pohle gives us the background for the dance of death and has transcribed all dialogues.

  2. Max Götz painted 56 watercolours in 1834. Götz included the text.

  3. Heinrich Kruspe drew 46 line drawings ca. 1844. Kruspe did not copy the text.

  4. A book by Ludwig Schellenberg. The book contained the text of the dance and was the basis of Schöer's article in 1902 (see external link).

    Judging from the quotations Schöer brings, this book contains the same as Pohle's of 1823. Long quotes are verbatim the same.

The Sequence

Everyone agrees that Death is the first image. Then the disagreement starts.
Kruspe, Death

The order of the 56 scenes is a chapter in itself. The oldest source is probably "Erfurt mit seinen Merkwürdigkeiten" by Arnold from 1802,(3) which mentions all 56 images with an ultra-brief description of some of them.

J. D. Pohle published the entire text for all 56 paintings in his book from 1823. The first 25 come in the same sequence as Arnold's list, but from that point on they disagree.

Max Götz copied all 56 paintings in 1834. He follows the exact same sequence as Pohle.

Kruspe published 40 pencil-drawings in 1872, but in a sequence that doesn't make sense.

In 1902 Schröer published the text from the dance and 45 of Kruspe's drawings. The text was probably copied from a book by Schellenberg, and Kruspe's drawings were arranged in the same order.

This may be the strangest sequence of them all, where actress, dancer, singer and Gypsy woman come at the start of the dance, whereas elector and king come towards the end.

None of these sequences make sense. The lack of logic has probably been another consequence of the many donors: Every time another donor had paid for a new painting, he or she decided where in the hall it should hang. However, this does not explain why the various sources disagree so strongly.

The present section follows Schröer's book.

Gĺ fremad
 

The dance starts with Death playing the oboe.

External link

Drawings by Heinrich Kruspe

Death
Kruspe 1736: Death
Actress
Kruspe 1736: Actress
Dancer
Kruspe 1736: Dancer
Singer
Kruspe 1736: Singer
Gypsy woman
Kruspe 1736: Gypsy woman
Cook
Kruspe 1736: Cook
Astronomer
Kruspe 1736: Astronomer
Typefounder
Kruspe 1736: Typefounder
Quack
Kruspe 1736: Quack
Cooper
Kruspe 1736: Cooper
Miller
Kruspe 1736: Miller
Potter
Kruspe 1736: Potter
Wax trader
Kruspe 1736: Wax trader
Wedding inviter
Kruspe 1736: Wedding inviter
Children
Kruspe 1736: Children
Mountain man
Kruspe 1736: Mountain man
Mayor
Kruspe 1736: Mayor
Queen
Kruspe 1736: Queen
The empress
Kruspe 1736: The empress
Pope
Kruspe 1736: Pope
Field watch
Kruspe 1736: Field watch
Civil servant
Kruspe 1736: Civil servant
Painter
Kruspe 1736: Painter
Lawyer
Kruspe 1736: Lawyer
Merchant
Kruspe 1736: Merchant
Colonel
Kruspe 1736: Colonel
Soldier
Kruspe 1736: Soldier
General
Kruspe 1736: General
Innkeeper
Kruspe 1736: Innkeeper
Apothecary
Kruspe 1736: Apothecary
Physician
Kruspe 1736: Physician
Count and countess
Kruspe 1736: Count and countess
Young woman
Kruspe 1736: Young woman
Young man
Kruspe 1736: Young man
Priest
Kruspe 1736: Priest
Canon
Kruspe 1736: Canon
Cardinal
Kruspe 1736: Cardinal
Hunter
Kruspe 1736: Hunter
Student
Kruspe 1736: Student
Orphanage
Kruspe 1736: Orphanage
Elector
Kruspe 1736: Elector
King
Kruspe 1736: King
Adam and Eve
Kruspe 1736: Adam and Eve
Christ
Kruspe 1736: Christ
Old woman
Kruspe 1736: Old woman

Paintings by Georg Maximilian Theodor Götz

Death
Götz 1736: Death
Actress
Götz 1736: Actress
Dancer
Götz 1736: Dancer
Singer
Götz 1736: Singer
Gypsy woman
Götz 1736: Gypsy woman
Cook
Götz 1736: Cook
Astronomer
Götz 1736: Astronomer
Typefounder
Götz 1736: Typefounder
Quack
Götz 1736: Quack
Judge
Götz 1736: Judge
Book printer
Götz 1736: Book printer
Cooper
Götz 1736: Cooper
Miller
Götz 1736: Miller
Potter
Götz 1736: Potter
Wax trader
Götz 1736: Wax trader
Wedding inviter
Götz 1736: Wedding inviter
Children
Götz 1736: Children
Digger
Götz 1736: Digger
Mountain man
Götz 1736: Mountain man
Mayor
Götz 1736: Mayor
Musician
Götz 1736: Musician
Queen
Götz 1736: Queen
The empress
Götz 1736: The empress
Emperor
Götz 1736: Emperor
Pope
Götz 1736: Pope
Field watch
Götz 1736: Field watch
Civil servant
Götz 1736: Civil servant
Old man
Götz 1736: Old man
Painter
Götz 1736: Painter
Lawyer
Götz 1736: Lawyer
Merchant
Götz 1736: Merchant
Banker
Götz 1736: Banker
Colonel
Götz 1736: Colonel
Soldier
Götz 1736: Soldier
General
Götz 1736: General
Innkeeper
Götz 1736: Innkeeper
Apothecary
Götz 1736: Apothecary
Physician
Götz 1736: Physician
Count and countess
Götz 1736: Count and countess
Young woman
Götz 1736: Young woman
Young man
Götz 1736: Young man
Priest
Götz 1736: Priest
Canon
Götz 1736: Canon
Cardinal
Götz 1736: Cardinal
Hunter
Götz 1736: Hunter
Student
Götz 1736: Student
Principal
Götz 1736: Principal
Elector
Götz 1736: Elector
King
Götz 1736: King
Adam and Eve
Götz 1736: Adam and Eve
Christ
Götz 1736: Christ
Old woman
Götz 1736: Old woman
Orphanage
Götz 1736: Orphanage
Orphanage
Götz 1736: Orphanage
Orphanage
Götz 1736: Orphanage
Drunkard
Götz 1736: Drunkard

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

At this point it must be pointed out that it is far from all of the paintings for which we know the year.

Mrs. Römpler established her trust in 1761, so it must be presumed that her portrait, the old woman, is later than this, and thus also later than 1750.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) had published Frankenstein in 1818 when she was 20 years old. The visit to Erfurt didn't happen before 1842.

The quote is from the travelogue »Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842, and 1843« (published 1844) Part II, Letter V (pp. 209-210).

Ignaz Ferdinand Arnold: "Erfurt mit seinen Merkwürdigkeiten und Alterthümern in historischer, statistischer, merkantilischer […]", Gotha, 1802, pp. 164-167.

In 1844 Robert Naumann published the book »Der Tod in allen seinen Beziehungen, ein Warner, Tröster und Lustigmacher«, where chapter 8 is about Erfurt, and is largely a transcript of Arnold (chapter 8 is rather short).