Kienzheim's dance of death

The mural itself told that it was painted in 1517; using numerals: »Anno 1 · 5 · 1 · 7«, as well as letters: »Anno domini tusent fünff hundert vnd Sybendzehen Jar«. After the revolution(1) the painting was covered with whitewash, and during the 19th century the wall and the mural perished.

In 1897 a manuscript was found in the archive of Kienzheim. It consisted of 31 leaves with the title: »Folgt der Toden Dantz, wie er zu Köntzen ihm Kreutzgang stot« ("Here follows the dance of death as it stands in Kienzheim in the cloister").

The manuscript not only reproduced all the texts from the mural, but also contained a very minute description of each scene: What clothes the person is wearing, the colour and materials of the clothes and shoes, along with the person's attitude and facial expression. For Death it is described in detail how many teeth this corpse has, how much hair, whether the ribs are visible, whether the guts are hanging out, whether Death is naked or covered, what colour, and so on.

The mural must have been monumental measuring 35 meters, assuming that it took up the entire wall. However, it is disputed where the painting was actually located. The only author who reports having seen the painting claimed it was located on the outside wall of the church: »an deren auswendigen Mauer man einen ziemlich beschädigten, aber vortreflich gemahlt=gewesenen Todentanz gewahr wird«,(2) while — as mentioned — the manuscript claimed it was placed in the cloister.

The painting was divided into three sections.

  1. Three introductory scenes:

  2. Then follows the dance of death proper with 25 participants. The whole society from pope and emperor down to young man, young woman and child. All verses consist of eight lines.

    In the middle of the dance, the painter himself pops up: Right after the 11th scene Death speaks six lines to the painter: »Dissen rymen sagt der tod zům moler«, and after the 14th scene the painter appears and replies with six linies: »Hie stot der moler gmolt vntz an die hosen« ("Here the painter stands painted all the way to his pants").

  3. The dance ends with three corpses: fifer, drummer and ensign (i.e. standard-bearer), which is quite illogical, since there has been only one Death per person throughout the dance (see: Death's Dance, or Line of the Dead?). For instance Death says to the physician: »Ir miest sterben, ich bin der todt« ("You must die, I am Death"), and the craftsman pleads with Death: »Ach lieber tod, lass mich leben«.

    Here in this concluding scene, Death has thus become triune. But when they turn to the fool, they nevertheless resemble one figure: »Lieber tod, jch wil din gesell sin« ("Dear Death, I want to be thine (singular) journeyman").

    At the very end comes a scene with Death and the usher / messenger, who is tasked with leading thirty more people on their way. The verses in this third section differ from the 8-lined verses in the dance itself: The three corpses have 14 lines, the fool has six, Death to the usher is six lines and the usher's response is 14.

The relationship to the dance of death in Basel

Kienzheim had close ties with Basel, and there are many similarities between the two dances. The curious thing is that the text is often similar to the one in Kleinbasel, i.e. the closed nunnery in Klingental, rather than the publicly available (and famous) painting in Grossbasel.

Here are the first four lines:

O ihr Menschen kint, kummet all erbey
Vnnd lugkt, welchs der Herr vnd der knecht sey.
Denn got richt nach dem Recht,
Da ligt der Herr und auch der Knecht.
Hie richt got noch dem rechten
Die heren ligen Bi den Knechten
nvn mercket hie Bi
Welger her oder knecht gewesen si

It is somewhat surprising that the painter in Kienzheim has been able to copy a text from the closed convent in Klingental, but there is another possibility: In 1517, when the painting was created, the dance in Grossbasel had not yet been restored by Hans Kluber in 1568. Maybe in Kienzheim we have a echo of what the Basel dance looked like before Kluber's restoration?

The same is true for the duke: »Ich hab alss ein hertzog ehren wert / Nit lang gereygert mit dem schwert«, which is reminiscent of Kleinbasel: »Ich han die edlen heren wercht / Als ein herzug geregirth myt dem swert«, while the duke in Grossbasel after Kluber's restauration says: »O Mordt muß ich so flux darvon / Land, Leut, Weib, Kind dahinden lon«.

On the whole, it can be difficult to determine whether the author was inspired by Basel or by another member of Der Oberdeutsche vierzeilige Totentanz. The preacher calls his audience "children of this world" and invites them to look at the painting: »O ir lieben kind diser weit / Ir sollen ansënhen diss gemeld«. That's how the text usually begins in Oberdeutsche vierzeilige Totentanz (but not in Basel), for instance in CPG 314: »O diser welt weyshayt kint […] Als des gemäldes figuren«.

The relationship to Der Doten Dantz mit Figuren

Der doten dantz: The dance house
Figuren, Figuren: Dance-house

Bruno Stehle began his article with a an introduction to dances of death, but it seems that his only source was Goette's "Holbeins Totentanz und seine Vorbilder". Stehle reproduces several of Goette's illustrations, but unfortunately Goette's mention of Doten Dantz mit Figuren is not only brief, but also very negative: "without originality", "lousy piece of work" and "little relevant to painted death dances".(3)

Therefore, Stehle wasn't aware that his text had many parallels with Doten Dantz mit Figuren, and he concentrated instead on Basel and Der Oberdeutsche vierzeilige Totentanz. It was not until the 1920s that the 1488-edition was reprinted in Wasmuths Kunsthefte and by Albert Schramm, and that the 1520-edition was reprinted by Drei Masken Verlag.

We can start by basically noting that both dances have eight-line verses, and therefore are not immediately related to Der Oberdeutsche vierzeilige Totentanz / the High German Four-lined dance of death.

In Kienzheim there appears a scribe. The only other dance of death, where this figur paticipates is Der Doten Dantz (and the rest of the family: the manuscript in Kassel, the fragments from Kleve, the North-Bohemian dance of death and Zimmern's dance of death).

Both Kienzheim and Der Doten Dantz starts with an invitation to enter the "dance house" (pictured right):

KienzheimDer Doten Dantz
Wol hër, ir herren vnd ouch ir knecht,
Springnent hër bey, vom allem geschlecht.
Wie jung, wie alt, wie schon vnd kruss,
Ir müessen alle in diss dantzhuss
WOL an wol an ir herren vnd knecht
Springet her by von allem geslecht
Wie iunck wie alt wie schone ader kruß
Ir mußet alle in diß dantz huß
Der doten dantz: The unexpectedly dead
Figuren, Figuren, Ossuary

Then follows a dead man in his grave: »Hie lüt ein todt im grab, ist vol schlangnen, krötten, würm, sagt den spruch, an einem langen zedel« ("here lies a dead [man] in a grave, [he] is full of snakes, toads, worms [and he] says these words on a long note.

The words on the speech-band are not the same as the speech held by the unexpectedly dead, but the description of the scene is striking (picture to the left). The dead man is full of snakes and has a toad in his belly. The other dancing corpses also have long snakes all over their bodies.

This is precisely one of the characteristics that sets Der Doten Dantz apart from other dances like those in Lübeck, Basel and Paris: That Death is full of long snakes and toads. This description is constantly repeated in Kienzheim. Just to take the first three scenes: »dryg schlangen zů dem hertzen haruss vnd zů denn sytten vnd zů den schencklen« ("three snakes out of the heart and from the side and thigh"), »ein grose krodt am hertzen sitzen« ("a large toad sitting at the heart"), »vnd sind im die schlangnen vm die bein vnd durch die macht geschloffen« ("and the snakes are about his legs and have slipped through the genitals").

Another distinctive feature of Der Doten Dantz is the large number of musical instruments, which Death employs. Out of 38 scenes, there are only three where Death is not handling one instrument or another: Trumpet, organ, harp, triangle, bells, etc.

The same thing goes for Kienzheim. I'll be a little lazy here and just quote from the German Wikipedia: »1. Papst (Harfe), 2. Kaiser (Trompete), […](4) 4. Kaiserin (Laute), 5. König (Pfeifen), 6. Bischof (Orgel), 7. Herzog (Zinken), 8. Graf (Jagdhorn), 9. Abt (Horn), 10. Ritter (Heertrommel), 11. Pfarrer (Schelle), 12. Arzt (Pritsche mit Schellen), 13. Barfüßer Mönch (Zeitglöckchen), 14. Schultheiß (Leier), 15. Ratsherr (Klingel), […] 17. Bürgerin (Hackbrett), […] 19. Wucherer (Dudelsack), […] 23. Jüngling (Schalmei), 24. Jungfrau (Geige), […] 26. Narr (Schnabelpfeife und Trommel)«.

Der doten dantz: Pope
Figuren, Figuren: Pope
Der doten dantz: Emperor
Figuren, Figuren: Emperor

Unfortunately we have no pictures of the dance in Kienzheim, but we have the thorough descriptions.

The first participant is the pope: »Hie kumpt der tod zů dem Bapst mit einem banner, zwein schlyssel dorin Crütz wiss« ("here comes Death to the pope with a banner, two keys therein are crossed").

In Der Doten Dantz Death comes with precisely such a flag (to the left). The two keys symbolize the Pope's power to loose and to bind here on earth, but it is strange that it is Death who bears this banner.

Then it's the emperor's turn: »Hie kumbt der tod zů dem keyser mit einer trumeten, mit einem gëlen fenlen, mit dem adler am fenlen gemalt« ("here comes Death to the Emperor with a trumpet with a yellow standard with the eagle painted on the standard"). A very accurate description of the image on the right. On top of this, the previous owner of this copy of Der Doten Dantz has coloured the standard yellow.

Der doten dantz: Official
Figuren, Figuren: Official
Der doten dantz: Child
Figuren, Figuren: Child

The official (to the left) is one of the figures not included in Kienzheim. Death has put his knee in a wooden stilt, and in principle we see the same thing with the cripple in Basel, but here (in Basel) Death is a mirror of his victim, and they are both lacking a foot. In Doten Dantz mit Figuren, Death's behavior is more inexplicable, and the same is true for the Death who fetches the count in Kientzheim: »got mit dem rechten knüw vff einer hiltzenen styltzen, hat den fůss hinden vs hencken« ("goes with the right knee on a wooden stilt; has the foot behind the thigh").

One of the few scenes where Death doesn't play music is with the child, where Death instead holds a windmill: »hat ein windloffer oder mül mit einem gemolten rotten stecken jnder rechten hand«.

Death's speech to the child is partly the same in both texts;

KienzheimDer Doten Dantz
Du kleines jungnes kindelin,
Es hat ein end das leben din.
Die falsch welt mecht dich betriegen,
Du styrbscht wäger jn der wegen,
IUnck nü geborns kyndelyn.
Eyn ende hait nü dz leben dyn.
Dye werlt mocht dich betriegen
Besser ist yß du sterbest in der wiegen

In contrast the child's reply is taken from Basel:

O we, o we, wass mag das sin !
Ein wiser man viert mich dahin.
Dantzen muss ich und kan nit gan.
O wee mein liebes Müetterlein,
Ein dürrer man zücht mich dahin,
Muoß tantzen und kan noch kaum gahn
Go forth

Read the text from Kienzheim.

External link and Ressources

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

The French revolution of 1789.

Even if the painting, the manuscript and Bruno Stehle's treatise is in German, Kienzheim is located in Alsace (German: Elsass), which today is French.

In French the name of the city acquires an extra t: Kientzheim.

Sigismund Billing (1742-1796):

»Ausser der Pfarrkirche, worin der Schwendischen Familie Begräbniß noch zu sehen, und an deren auswendigen Mauer man einen ziemlich beschädigten, aber vortreflich gemahlt=gewesenen Todentanz gewahr wird, den man für ein Werk des Holbeins ausgiebt, […]«
(Bewohner von den ältesten bis in die neuesten Zeiten, 1782, pp. 143-144)

Goette: The "Dotendantz with Figures, Complaint and Answer" etc. (see Maßmann No. 49, p. 84) is a type printing with woodcuts from the end of the 15th century, but which neither follows a particular model, nor is characterized by originality. It is to a large extent an accumulation of reminiscences to the Danse Macabre, the Lübeck and the Grossbasler paintings and their texts, where admonitions to repentance, threat of heavenly punishments and the like play the main role; a lousy piece of work that at least for the history of the painted dances of death is little relevant..

Translated from pages 110-111: »Der "Dotendantz mit Figuren, Klage und Antwort" u. s. w. (vgl. Maßmann No. 49, S. 84) ist ein Typendruck mit Holzschnitten vom Ende des 15. Jahrhunderts, der aber weder einem bestimmten Vorbilde folgt, noch sich durch Originalität auszeichnet. Es ist zum grossen Teil eine Anhäufung von Reminiscenzen an die Danse macabre , das Lübecker und das Grossbasler Gemälde und deren Texte, wobei Ermahnungen zur Reue, Androhung himmlischer Strafen und Ähnliches die Hauptrolle spielen; ein Machwerk, das wenigstens für die Geschichte der gemalten Totentänze wenig belangreich ist «.
(Holbeins Totentanz und seine Vorbilder by Alexander Goette, 1897, pp. 110-111).

Wikipedia has overlooked the cardinal and the marine trumpet.