Marginal thinking: 02. Dancing on the edge

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

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
Lazarus
Historiated initial
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
The pope carries his own coffin.
Pope

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.

Of course, the most interesting dances are the longer ones with one or two dancers per page. The picture to the right shows such a dance, which has 57 participants and starts with a preacher. The picture shows the pope. Normally it's Death who carries the coffin while tugging at the pope (as it happens in the example to the left), but in this case the pope is made to carry his own coffin.

This series is very old. The book is from 1430-1435, so this dance is only 5-10 years younger than the dance on the wall in Paris and 30 years older than the dance in Lübeck. Unfortunately the images made available by the museum aren't particularly large. There doesn't seem to be any text.

Death and the legate
Cardinal
Death and the nobleman
Nobleman

The picture to the left shows Death and a Papal legate, "le legat du pape de rome", and to the right it's the duke of Brittany, "le duc de bretaigne".

The quality is high, but unfortunately the library has only put two of the images on the Net (click the images for a larger version and for external link).

Douce: Death and the pope
Douce
Douce: Death and the child.
Douce

The book of hours to the left and right once belonged to Francis Douce. He described it himself in his book, the year before he died:

2. An exquisitely beautiful volume, in large 8vo. bound in brass and velvet. It is a Latin Horæ, elegantly written in Roman type at the beginning of the 16th century. It has a profusion of paintings, every page being decorated with a variety of subjects. These consist of stories from scripture, sports, games, trades, grotesques, &c. &c.

[…]

The side margins have the following Danse Macabre, consisting as usual of two figures only. Papa, Imperator, Cardinalis, Rex, Archiepiscopus, Comestabilis, Patriarcha, Eques auratus, Episcopus, Scutarius, Abbas, Prepositus, Astrologus, Mercator, Cordiger, Satelles, Usurarius, Advocatus, Mimus, Infans, Heremita.

[…]

The margins at bottom contain a great variety of emblems of mortality. Among these are the following: […]

(Douce: The dance of death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood, 1833, pages 72-74)

Douce proudly ends his description: »This precious volume is in the present writer's possession«. Today the book is part of the collection that bears his name, and the book is named Douce 135, proving that you don't truly own anything until you have given it away.

There are 21 participants and they appear on all the right pages looking left, while Death stands on all the left pages. The whole dance can be viewed online (see link below).

(223/227) Pope and emperor.
Pope and emperor

The book of hours to the right has belonged to Charles V, and can also be seen online (see link below). In contrast to the other examples on this page, there is a number of short texts for each picture (42 persons with 2 pictures per page). The text is in French, and I'm quoting it here. The numbers in parenthesis are the page-number (written in pencil), and the picture files' number on the library's home page. The picture to the right has number 223/227, because this dance — quite exceptionally — doesn't start with the pope and emperor.

(218/222) O pouures gens plains de toute folie
com[n]ent ousez vous viure en tal desir
du quel sans doubte la pouure ame se lie
de damnement pour sy peu de plaisir
dot auez fait offe[n]c...
Ne pensez vous point quil vous fault venir sans remede 9e
tous a la dance et qui piz est apres seres pugniz de tous les maulx
las compaignons et qui pourrons nous faire
avisons il car il en est sayson
plus ne nous fault en ce monde repaire
Pour y gaudir cest la conclusión
mez des trois mors retiendrons la saisson
a bien viure en bonne penitance
a celle fin que en la morte saisons
puissons payer daulcung bien nostre offence.

(220/224) A tous resai de par dieu que on sa age
de don[n]er fin a lor de vie mondane
car condust est que la mort sans faintese
de bref viendra horrible et soudaine
et en marra toute nature hu[m]...[maine?]
a vne dance nomee macabre
Pourtant se garde qui poura de tel paine
car tous yront soit bongré ou malgre.
Die par sa grace vous veille prandre en grace.

(221/225) Vous nauez garde de meschaper
sz gent qui tout vouliez tronper.
Chartrex qui auez fait abstinance
Mieux en dancerez a la dance

(222/226) Maistre moyne venez aduent
plus ne demourez au couuent.
Venez aduant fault usurier
il ne vous fault point espergnier

(223/227) Empereul maistre de la terre
il vous fault deuenir en terre.
Don pape vous qm[m]enceres
sil vous plaít vous aduenceres.

(224/228) Cardinal pas ne demoures
vous vous aves bel escusez.
Sire roy mes quil ne vous deplaise
suives moy a voustre bel ayse.

(225/229) Pour ce que estez con[n]estable
je vous en ay plus agreable.
Regardez moy quel patriachê
come il fait laide grimace.

(226/230) Et vous archeuesque et prelat
il vous faut venir a lesbat.
puis 99 eltez ly gentil baron
venez comme le plus mygnon.

(227/231) Vous grant esuesque dantioche
venir fault au son de la cloche.
Escuier gent et gracieux
prenes angre sy nauez mieux.

(228/232) Les gras morceaux aues menges
maistre abbe vous le compares.
Baillit qui auez fait le maistre
venez vous esbatre cest estre.

(229/233) Cæ maistre vaillant docteur
je vous pre[n]s pour estre recteur.
Bourgois qui viues de grant terre
pas ne demoures ie menuente.

(230/234) Sire chanoine presbaudes
viure plus ne vous attendez.
Marchant qy esties sy aduise
vous me auies ia oblie

(236/240) Empress and abbess
Empress and abbess

(231/235) faitez lesquarmoche
medecin dean doce
gentil soufreteux
ne soyez honteux

(232/236) conbien que soyez sage
vous ferez le voyage
galant sans soussy
suiuez moy aussy

(233/237) maistre aire preñez en gre
il fault laisser laborage
et faire auecques le voyage

(234/238) cordelier il fault que dancez
acomplir ce pelerinage
vous fault dauantage

(235/239) poures gens mondains [no picture]
qui estez tant vains
ceur plus deur qui aci soiez tous certains
que tous pour le moins ainsy danceres
donc consideres coment vous viurez
le temps auenir affin quant serez au passage
amer ne soyez pugnir.
Aussy toust meurt [to the child]
jeune que vieulx

(236/240) venez aduant dame e[m]periere

madame l'abesse
pas ne vous delesse.

(237/241) pouure royne vous estez morte

dame la prieure
venez tout en leure

(238/242) Duchesse venez a la feste

vous qui estez de sánete clere
dancerez per bonne maniere

(239/243) Baronne venez en aduant

belle vierge honeste
venez a la 'este

(240/244) gentille fame ne vous desplaise

venez aduant ma poure vefue.

(241/245) mignone bourgoyse
suiuez moy sans...
pouure penitante
pas ne demourez je menuente.

(242/246) Sus, venez marchande
que je ne vous change
fame de village
estez vous sauuage.

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page

The rest of this section will concentrate on the printed dances of death, particularly those by Simon Vostre.

External links


Up to section about books of hours