The original dance of death was painted during the plague years around 1463. The painting is attributed to the local painter Bernt Notke, but the truth is that there's not really any proof that Bernt Notke painted the dance(s) of death.
The author is unknown, but due to peculiarities of the language (see example in the footnote on this page) it is assumed that the text is based on a Middle Dutch model. The number of dancers and certain lines show that the text - like most other dances of death - ultimately goes back to the dance of death in Cimetière des Innocents in Paris.
After a couple of centuries with repairs and maintenance it finally became necessary, in 1701, to replace the painting. The paiting was copied very carefully - but at the same time some deliberate changes were introduced, which we'll examine on the page about the painter Anton Wortmann.
The old painting disappeared but fortunately the preacher (and future vicar) of the church wrote down as much of the old Low German text as he could read. He has, however, messed up his notes a bit and this will be dealt with in the page about Jacob von Melle.
A new text replaced the old one. The author, Nathanael Schlott didn't bother to look at what remained of the original medieval text but wrote a new one instead, which was more in accord with the fashion of that time.
By 1942 it was over: Lübeck was bombarded and the painting was destroyed - together with a large part of the city. What remained was a number of photos, drawings, lithographs, descriptions and texts inspired by the painting. The purpose of this site is to present those sources to make it possible to imagine what the original painting and the chapel looked like.
Between 1952 and 1956 Alfred Mahlau created a new kind of dance of death in the same chapel - consisting of two large stained-glass windows. This time it wasn't the medieval plagues but rather the world wars that inspired the work.
But while Lübeck's dance of death has perished, it is still possible to visit Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and see the seven meters long remains of a painting that has been very much like the dance in Lübeck, both concerning picture and text. There have been many theories about the relationship between these two paintings: were they painted by the same master? Or even if the painting in Tallinn is what remains of the painting in Lübeck?
Originally the entire site was dedicated to the dance in Lübeck, and with more than 200 pages this painting is still a heavyweight. To make this great amount of material accessible I have tried to organize it into 5 groups and a few "odd ends":
The original painting is normally attributed to Bernd Notke, so he gets his own little section.
Then comes the new text from 1701, illustrated with copper engravings by Suhl from 1783.
The posteriority has not been kind to Wortmanns "cloying" painting and Schlotts "boring" text. Nevertheless there's nothing that indicate that the painting's fame should have vaned during the last 241 year. The German text is accompanied by a loose English translation published by Thomas Nugent in 1768. The Danish version of this section instead contains a translation from 1738 entitled »Den Lybekske Dødning-dantz«.
A section with different reproductions of the painting. In particular Milde is to be recommended.
These books and the woodblocks were sold and brought to Copenhagen, and around 1550 a Danish version of these two books was published with the same woodcuts.
The only existing exemplar of Copenhagen's Dance of Death is in a bad condition, and several pages are missing. Fortunately there's a later edition named Dødedantz, which doesn't have any pictures, but contains the same text. Thus, by combining the text from Dødedantz and the woodcuts from the Lubeckian books it is possible to complete Copenhagen's Dance of Death. For unknown reasons, Dødedantz has been unknown for centuries so it is on these pages that the restored Copenhagen's Dance of Death. gets its first re-premiere in years.
Finally a section about the painting in Tallinn, where we'll also discuss a silly, but wide-spread, hypothesis about the painting in Tallinn being the remaining part of the painting in Lübeck.
And then a few "odd ends":
Click the red plus-signs to expand.
The book has nearly 500 pages and contains everything you wanted to know about the dance of death in Lübeck and more. The text from Lübeck and Tallinn is examined with annotations to almost every word. Articles about the stained glass windows, Copenhagen's dance of death, the clothes, the language and much, much more.
There are very nice colour pictures of the dance of death in Tallinn but - strangely - not from Lübeck! This painting is only reproduced as an 8-cm high concertina-style banner. You would think, that when a book is published with nearly 500 pages about a single painting, there would be room for a bigger picture!
Mantels was a pioneer, and pioneers tend to become outdated. On the other hand Mantels is still worth reading since he had access to the church records and almost counts as a primary source.
The book has been digitized here: Der Todtentanz in der Marienkirche zu Lübeck, but it is also available as a facsimile reprint, where Freytag has added a section with the newest (i.e. years) research, the Tallinn text, translations into High German and much more.
Der Totentanz in der Marienkirche zu Lübeck. Separate print from Der Wagen, 1951 - 8 pages + a concertina-style banner. It's amazing how much has happened to the research since 1951: almost every "fact" in this pamphlet is wrong, and no — Nathanael Schlott is not spelled Natanael Schott.
Das Revaler Totentanz-Fragment. A concertina-style banner (73 * 17 cm) with a nice colour reproduction af the dance of death fragment in Tallinn. There's a short text in Estonian and (High) German.
Dodendantz. German book by Timothy Sodmann from 2001. This is a facsimile print of Dodendantz from 1520. The book also contains a transcript of the text, a complete glossary (Low German - High German) and a 30-page postscript about Lübeck's dances of death. Highly recommendable.
Des dodes danz ......nach den lübecker drucken von 1489 und 1496, Tübingen 1876, herausgegeben von Hermann Baethcke.
The text from Des dodes dantz (for inscrutable reasons Baethcke has dropped a "t" in the title). The book contains no pictures, but the complete text, lots of footnotes and a glossary (Low German / High German). Can be downloaded from The Internet Archive.
Den gamle danske dødedans. Copenhagen's dance of death from 1550 reprinted in 1896 with introduction and annotations by Raphael Meyer. Available from the Internet Archive. I have converted Meyer's introduction to HTML in the Danish version of this site.
Totentänze ....Die Deutschsprachigen Spätmittelalterlichen Totentänze unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Inkunabel, Des dodes dantz, Lübeck 1489 by Brigitte Schulte.
Schulte compares the structure of 14 dances of death (13 of which are German). The last part of the book is a thorough and sound comparison of the text in Lübeck/Tallinn with Des dodes dantz and Dodendantz.
Can be downloaded: Des dodes dantz - LWL