Marginal thinking: Dancing on the edge

Death with coffin and arrow
Three Living
Death with coffin and Death riding a bull

Looking back — now 500 years after the fact — it's no wonder that there were dances of death in the old books of hours. There was a long-standing tradition for filling the pages with little vignettes, the books contained a large section called "the office of the dead", and dances of death had been in fashion ever since 1425.

In most cases the artists contended themselves with a single picture to introduce the section. To the left is a scene with the three living and the three dead. We have seen a number of examples of this on the previous page, but in this case another detail has been added at the bottom of the page: Death with a coffin in his hand aims his long dart at a young man.

The picture to the right shows a burial. We saw examples of this too on the previous page, but in the left margin there is the addition of Death with coffin and spade, and at the bottom Death with a dart riding a bull (a motive that we'll meet repeatedly in this section).

The floral pattern becomes a dance of death
Historiated initial

To the left, Lazarus is resurrected by Jesus. This motive was often employed to illustrate the Office of the dead, and we saw examples on the previous page. In this case the artist has added a jolly dance of death among the flowers.

To the right, the initial letter has been filled with a scene where Death greets a group of persons among whom we recognize the pope, the cardinal, the bishop and the king.

Horae B. Virginis ad usum romanum (ca. 1497). Jehannot.
Office of the Dead

To the left, the Office of the Dead is introduced by a dance of death: Death with a coffin on his shoulder drags the pope away, and we must assume that the row of persons behind the pope will follow along.

The book on the right has a big picture of the three living and the three dead. To the right, a corpse is buried sewn into a sheet. Below, Death sets off with pope, emperor and a monk.

The Morgan, Ms M.117
Ms 117

The book on the left has a large image of Death attacking the pope. The small scenes show the emperor, king, cardinal and soldier.

To the right, Death stands on a bridge and raises his dart against pope, emperor, cardinal (with red hat), king and others.

Frick hours
Frick hours
Jeanne de France
Jeanne de France

To the left, Death drags pope, emperor, cardinal, king, queen and several others away.

To the right is a large image of a funeral. On the two sides of this picture we see the three living and the three dead. Below, Death rides on horseback and has captured pope, emperor and lots of other people with his rope.

Egerton, Ms. 2019
Egerton 2019

To the left, Death carrying a coffin grabs the pope. Behind the pope stands a cardinal (with red hat) and perhaps a bishop.

To the right is a funeral surrounded by ossuaries. The small scenes show what preceded the funeral: the sewing up of the corpse, the mass for the dead and the sacrament of the Eucharist.

At the bottom, Death rides on a unicorn and points his dart at the pope, emperor, king and noble lady.

Left side of spread
Trient codex
Right side of spread
Trient codex 1761

On the left we see Jesus raising his dead friend Lazarus. To the right (inside the letter D) Jesus himself is resurrected.

Around these two tributes to life and the resurrection there are many instances of Death chasing people. There are a total of 7 pairs (including the pair squeezed in between the two frames).

One can discuss whether this is a dance as such. Cosacchi(1) believes it to be an illustration of the story of Everyman, but his explanation seems more confusing than convincing.

Horae B. M. V.

On the left side there is a merry dance going on between the vines, where you can see emperor, cardinal, monk, child and hermit.

The office of the dead to the right may not be a traditional dance of death, but it does start with the pope, there's a long row of people, and there's even music to accompany the dance.

Now let's look at seven specific manuscripts:

The first of these stands out by being produced in Paris, only a few years after La Danse Macabre was painted: Rothschild 2535

Go forth

The next chapter in this series is about Rothschild 2535.

Later on we will concentrate on printed books of hours.

Footnotes: (1)

Stephan Cosacchi, Makabertanz, Der Totentanz in Kunst, Poesie Und Brauchtum Des Mittelalters, 1965, pages 608-609.