The Dance of Death

Lübeck, canon, nobleman and physician
Lübeck, canon, nobleman and physician
There's an expression "to look like Death warmed over". The similar expression in Danish is "to look like Death from Lübeck".

I have always wondered what this charming Christmas-city, with its great beer and overly sweet marzipan, had done to deserve such a disparaging sobriquet. While researching for a Danish site about tarot I found the answer.

"Death from Lübeck" was a 30 meter painting, showing Death in a long chain-dance with 24 humans - painted life-size - from all classes of society, from pope to infant. Death dances around in the procession, calling people to the dance, but most of the dancers-to-be try to decline. Pictures and text are combined so we have what may be one of the world's first and greatest comic strips.

The dance of death in Tallinn, Estonia.
Preacher and Pope

The painting was destroyed during the 2nd world war and, anyway, it was only a copy since the original medieval painting from 1463 had been replaced by a new one with a new text in 1701. On the other hand there's still a fragment (yes, 7½ meters is a fragment) of a very similar painting in Tallinn, which can still be visited, and where one can read parts of the original medieval text.

Death on the lion The painting was famous for centuries, and the burghers of Lübeck produced illustrated books loosely based on the dance of death in St. Mary's Church. Later, the woodcuts were sold to Denmark, and around 1550 Copenhagen's dance of death was published. On these pages the book gets a repremiere — restored for the first time in years.

The dance of death was a popular and wide-spread theme in the late Middle Ages. On these pages there are samples all the way from metropols like Berlin, London, Paris and Basel to Malmø and Nørre Alslev. All over Europe one could see the long chain dances with Death dancing away with citizens from all walks of society.

The subject for this site is the original medieval dance of death, but I have added two sections outside this scope.

Holbein, The pope
Holbein Proofs, Pope

The first one is Hans Holbein, whose famous woodcuts were published in 1538. Instead of a chain dance, Holbein depicted a number of independent scenes, showing how Death lurks everywhere: at home, on the road, at sea etc. In this manner Holbein de facto changed the entire genre, and I have dedicated a large section to showing how he influenced other artists.

The other thing is that being a Dane I have an interest in documenting Danish dances of death.

The best way to start is to jump directly into the dance by clicking the pictures below:

Main page

The Old Text
  Bernt Notke
The New Text
Printed Books
  Des dodes dantz
  Copenhagen's Dance of Death
The dance of death in Tallinn
The dance of death in Berlin
The Danse Macabre of Paris
La Grant Danse Macabre New
The dance of death in London
The dance of death in Basel
The dance of death in Erfurt
The dance of death in Dresden
The dance of death in Füssen
Doten Dantz mit Figuren
Danish Dances of Death  
Heidelberg's block book
Muninch's block book
Hans Holbein
Books of hours
Pictures - lots of pictures
Various subjects
Site map
About this site

The dance of death in Lübeck, part 0The dance of death in Lübeck, part 1The dance of death in Lübeck, part 2The dance of death in Lübeck, part 3The dance of death in Lübeck, part 4The dance of death in Lübeck, part 5The dance of death in Lübeck, part 6The dance of death in Lübeck, part 7The dance of death in Lübeck, part 8The dance of death in Lübeck, part 9
Click to see text and images

I would like to thank Mischa von Perger for correcting errors without number.

Dancing around

The hands are used for navigating back and forth between related pages on the same level. The fifer is at the bottom of every page and will bring you one level up in the hierarchy. The horizontal bone is purely ornamental - clicking it won't do anything. Small red numbers in parenthesis(1) are footnotes.

The site is updated every now and then. The easiest way to discover new additions, is to navigate to the last page in the gallery.

Death from Lübeck
This is what a footnote looks like.

You close the footnote by simply clicking the skull in the top, right corner.

You can move the note around by dragging the headline.

If the text is too long, you can resize the note by pulling the edges and corners.