Lübeck's Dance of Death

Hans Christian Andersen and Lübeck

Visiting Lübeck's Dance of Death was a natural part of an educational journey and since Hans Christian Andersen travelled abroad 30 times, it was inevitable that their paths would cross.

Hans Christian Andersen took a trip to the Harz in Northern Germany from 16/5 to 24/6 1831. He went through Lübeck both on the outward and homeward journey, but he was too busy griping about his bad teeth to write anything particular in his diary.

Hans Christian Andersen Death on the lion Nevertheless, he was in St. Mary's Church because in his travelogue "Shadow Pictures from a Journey to the Harz Mountains and Saxon Switzerland, etc etc" (published September the same year) there's a splendid description of the dance of death:

      In St. Mary's Church I saw the famed astronomical clock-
work, and the still more famous cycle of paintings, called
"The Dance of Death." Every rank, every age, from the
Pope to the child in the cradle, is here invited to take a part
in Death's cotillon(1), and all in the costume of the time in
which they were painted, which is said to have been in the
year 1463. Under each figure stands a verse in Low German
- a dialogue between the dancers: these verses, however, are
not the original old rhymes, but a later poetical attempt made
about 1701(2). It appeared to me as if the painter had placed
an ironical smile in the dancing skeltons' faces, that seemed
as if it would say to me and the whole company of spectators.
who were here, and made their remarks on it, "You imagine,
now, that you are standing still, or at most walking about in St.
Mary's Church, and looking at the old pictures. Death has
not yet got you with him in the dance; and yet you already
dance with me ; aye altogether ! The great dance begins from
the cradle. Life is like the lamp, which begins to burn out as
soon as it is lighted. As old as each of you are, so many years
have I already danced with you; every one has his different
turn, and the one holds out in the dance longer than the other;
but toward the morning hour the lights burn out, and then -
tired, fatigued - you all sink down in my arms, and - that is
called death! "

In 1833 he received a travel grant and embarked on a long trip (16 months) for Southern Europe and April 23rd he wrote: A sketch by Hans Christian Andersen "The sail was boring, my spirits low; At 11 o'clock we were in Lübeck, everything seemed familiar to me from the previous time". We are not told whether "everything" includes St. Mary's Church.

In 1852 Hans Christian Andersen sailed down the Trave River again, bound for Lübeck, but apparently he had forgotten all about the "boring sail" in 1833 for he wrote May 17th: "The Trave meanders a lot, but did not make the impression of beauty as when I came here for the first time in 1831 (for 21 years I haven't been here and this was then my first trip abroad)". In Lübeck he went "to the organist and with him into the St. Mary's Church [...] Saw the death dance, Death looks very jolly".

In the novel "Only a Fiddler" from 1837, Lübeck's dance of death is featured prominently. The protagonist is a young boy, who happens to have the same name as the author: Hans Christian Andersen on the bench Death with arrow

      When Christian had entered, the door was closed again.
Upon the walls of the little room hung several pictures which
had a peculiar interest for him: there were representations(3) of
the "Dance of Death," in colored prints, after the paintings in
the Church of Maria at Lubeck; all must here take part in
the dance, from the Pope and the Emperor to the child in the
cradle, which exclaims in astonishment, -

" O Death, this art how can I know?
That I must dance, yet cannot go ! "

      Christian looked at the figures in the pictures, and it oc-
curred to him that they all turned their backs to him; he in-
quired what this could mean.
      "They have moved in dancing," answered the godfather,
and arranged the figures. " Hast thou stood long outside the
door?" he then asked.
      "No, not long; thou wast playing on the fiddle, and I lis-
tened. If I had been here should I have seen how Death
danced, and how the puppets moved? for it is all true which
thou hast told me of them, is it not?"
      "They shall be thine," replied the godfather, and took down
the pictures from the wall. " Tell thy father that I have given
them to thee; the glass and frames, however, I shall keep my-
self. They are pretty figures, are they not? Thou canst like
them? Am I not good? Speak !"

[the godfather then teaches Christian to play the fiddle]

      Nearly a whole hour did the first lesson last. The god-
father then took the instrument himself and played; that was
fiddling! He trifled with the tones as a juggler who plays
with his golden apples and sharp knives.
      "Ah, only play how Death dances!" besought the boy, and
the godfather drew forth some sharp tones so that the bass-
strings still vibrated, whilst the quinte hissed in soft tones.
      "Dost thou bear the Emperor? He appears amidst the
sound of trumpets; but now comes Death, he drives along like
a whistling wind! Dost thou hear the Pope? He sings
psalms; but Death shakes his scythe! Beautiful maidens
float along in a giddy dance; but Death -yes, thou dost
hear him? - he sings like a mourning cricket!" And the
godfather closed his eyes; upon his brow stood large drops of

It's less than clear, which "colored prints" Hans Christian Andersen is referring to. Since the number of pictures (5) corresponds to the number of dancers - Death, pope, emperor, maiden and infant - it sounds as if there's one person per picture.

The dance of death in St. Mary's Church in Lübeck has been reproduced several times, but usually in the form of one long chain-dance. A going through of all the various prints can be found in the book Ihr müßt alle nach meiner Pfeife tanzen pp. 83-135 and in Christa Pieske's article: "Die graphischen Wiedergaben des Totentanzes von Bernt Notke" in Philobiblon 1968, pp. 82-104. See the following page for several reproductions of the painting.


The Danish Royal Library's site has many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales and novels (in Danish) - including Skyggebilleder af en Reise til Harzen and Kun en Spillemand. The translations on the present page are taken from Hurd and Houghton's Edition (New York, 1870-1).

The dairies of Hans Christian Andersen were translated by Patricia L. Conroy and Sven H. Rossel, University of Washington Press. Seattle & London, 1990 (the quotes on the present page however, are my own translations).

You can see Hans Christian Andersen's handwritten notes from his first trip to the Harz in facsimile on the Danish Royal Library's homepage about manuscripts. Hans Christian Andersen's notes are, of course, in Danish, but since his handwriting is completely illegible, you'll understand as much as any Dane. The entire text from Hans Christian Andersen's diaries is available (in Danish) at the Danish Royal Library's homepage about Hans Christian Andersen.

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

Cotillon...: (or: Cotillion) is a French dance - related to the quadrille. The dance of death is really a farandole, but maybe young Hans Christian Andersen thought that "Cotillon" had a more fancy sound to it. (8=
Hans Christian Andersen is right on all points - except one: The "new" text from 1701 was in High German and not Low German.
The Danish text is more specific and says there were five pieces from the dance of death.