Lübeck's Dance of Death

The beginning of the dance
Lübeck, beginning of the dance

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.

Lübeck and St. Mary's Church ca. 1870.
Lübeck ca. 1870

The author is unknown, but due to peculiarities of the language (see example here) 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.

The stained glass windows today.
The child

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.

The dance of death in Tallinn.
The dance of death in Tallinn

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?

Pages in this Section

Originally the entire site was dedicated to the dance in Lübeck, and with 156 pages (and 186 in the Danish version) 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":

  1. The first group is about the old tekst from 1463. To illustrate this text, I use black-and-white photographs taken between the two world-wars. Obviously these photos show the copy created by Wortmann in 1701, but there's nothing to do about that. There are no reproductions of the original painting from 1463.

    The original painting is normally attributed to Bernd Notke, so he gets his own little section.

  2. 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«.

  3. A section with different reproductions of the painting. In particular Milde is to be recommended.

  4. Death on the lion Books. In 1489 a book was printed in Lübeck named Des Dodes Dantz with the text and the many woodcuts being loosely based on the painting in St. Mary's Church. Later, in 1520, came a shorter version named Des Dodes Dantz.

    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.

  5. 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":

Outside this Section

Sources

External Links


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