In this section:
Count and countess
Adam and Eve
J. D. Pohle
→ 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.
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 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).
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.
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 orphanage burned down in 1872, and the dance of death perished. We have four sources:
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.
Max Götz painted 56 watercolours in 1834. Götz included the text.
Heinrich Kruspe drew 46 line drawings ca. 1844. Kruspe did not copy the text.
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 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.
The dance starts with Death playing the oboe.
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).