The Dance of Death in Tallinn

Tallinn's dance of death, part 1Tallinn's dance of death, part 2Tallinn's dance of death, part 3
Click the three pictures for more information.
The dance of death in Tallinn
The dance of death in Tallinn, June 2010

It's impossible to talk about Lübeck's dance of death without mentioning the fragment in St. Nikolai's church in Tallinn (the capitol of Estonia, formerly known as Reval). This painting is supposedly made by the artist responsible for the painting in Lübeck - namely Bernt Notke. It has even been claimed that the fragment in Tallinn is a remnant of Lübeck's painting from 1463.

Originally the painting presumably had the same length as that in Lübeck, i.e. 30 meters, but most of it has perished after being stored for centuries in a damp room. What remains is a large piece measuring 6.40m and a smaller bit (with the king) measuring 1.15m. In 1843 the two pieces were joined and framed, between 1962-1964 the painting was thoroughly restored in Moscow and since the mid-eighties it has been available to the public. Click on the relevant parts of the picture for details.

The fragment shows us what the painting in Lübeck might have looked like and it gives us part of the missing text. 300 years ago and 1100 kilometers away Jacob von Melle was able to read 4 lines from the start of the text in Lübeck, and when you read the text in Tallinn it's almost like the old painting had magically reappeared.

Lübeck the year 1701Tallinn today

To dessem Dansse rope ik alghemene
Pawest, Keiser unde alle Creaturen
Arme, Rike, grote unde klene
Tredet vort, wente nu en helpet nen truren.

To dussem dantse rope ik al gemene
Pawes keiser unde alle creaturen
Arm ryke groet unde kleine
Tredet vort went iu en helpet nen truren

The empress, Lübeck 1701
The empress, Lübeck
The empress, Tallinn today
The empress, Tallinn

The background behind the dancers is totally different from the one in Lübeck, but the sequence of humans is the same and the similarity between the 2 paintings is striking. See for instance the empress from Lübeck to the left and Tallinn to the right. And remember that the picture from Lübeck is a black and white photo of a copy from 1701, whereas the picture from Tallinn shows what it has looked like from the conception.

Lübeck and Tallinn share a unique structure of verses: All verses consist of 8 lines, each "participant" uses his verse to complain about having to take part in the dance. Death answers back with 7 lines, and in the 8th line he turns to the next in the sequence (this structure is only used in one other dance of death, namely the Spanish Danza General de la Muerte).

Linguists have come to the conclusion that the two texts are not identical, but that they probably are two independent translations of the same original from the Netherlands. In any case the pieces fit together so that the text in the Tallinn-fragment gives us a large part of the text that is missing in Lübeck.

The History of the Painting

The first time the painting was mentioned was by the new church warden Jost Dunte / Jobst Dunten, who made a note in 1603 that he had paid a sum of money to the carver Thomas for work on the dance of death — presumably work on the wooden frame — that his predecessor in the office hadn't paid: »so unbezahlt geblieben bei seligen Engell thor borchs Zeiten«. In 1622 the painting was renovated: »den Totendantz durch den Mahler renouiren vnd Sauberen lassen«.

Tallinn, Dance of death
The Painting at the end of the 19. Century

All this tells us nothing about the painting itself, but in 1651-1657 the painting was restored again, and this time we are told that the painting was located in the St. Anthony Chapel, just like it is today: »in der grossen Antonij Capellen den alten tottentanz renouiren vnd verbessern lassen«.

The St. Anthony Chapel is fairly large, ca. 10 × 15 meters. It replaced a much more narrow St. Matthew Chapel, which only measured 10 × 5 meters. The first canvas — i.e. from the beginning to the cardinal — would not have fit unto one of the shorter sides of the St. Matthew Chapel, and if we assume that the painting originally had 24 dancing couples like in Lübeck, then this chapel simply wouldn't have had room enough for this monumental painting. This means that either the painting was originally hanging somewhere else, or the painting was produced after the St. Anthony Chapel was built in 1486-1493.

The painting was restored several times — inscriptions on the backs of both canvasses showed they had been restored in 1879. On March 9, 1944 the church was ruined by the Soviet's bombing of Tallinn in World War II, but the St. Anthony Chapel survived. The same year the painting was moved to the State Art Museum of Estonia. Later on it was sent to Moscow for a restauration, before it returned to the St. Anthony Chapel.

In is not know why nor when the painting was shortened. The lack of hard data has spawned a crackpot theory that the fragment in Tallinn is a remnant from Lübeck.

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Alternate spellings: tallin talinn revaler niguliste st. nicholas tallinna surmatantsu surmatants