Lübeck's Dance of Death

Bernt Notke (†1509)

The Triumphal Cross.
The Triumphal Cross

Bernt Notke is mentioned in about 50 documents. This is an unusually large number compared to many other medieval artists. Unfortunately most of them are court documents where Notke in many cases only appears as a witness and thus they only tell us that Notke was present in this and that city - at this and that time. To sketch out his life then becomes a game of connect-the-dots.

The Mass of St. Gregory in Århus Cathedral by Bernt Notke; click to see the entire painting.
The Mass of St. Gregory in Århus Cathedral by Bernt Notke

The first time Notke was mentioned in any document was in Lübeck 14th April 1467 where he complained to the city council that the painters guild were harassing his apprentices because he was not a member of the guild. On this occasion, Notke produced a birth letter (not a birth certificate) from Lassahn, Pomerania.

This does not prove that he was born in Lassahn - only that he knew somebody in Lassahn well enough for them to vouch for him. It's more likely that he was born in Tallinn: Notke is not an unusual name in the Tallinn-area, and a letter from 23rd August 1468 indicates that Notke was related to the Tallinn vicar Diderik Notken.

From 1483 he spent some years in Sweden and for a time he was Deputy Master of the Mint in Stockholm. In 1505 he was appointed churchwarden in St. Peter's Church in Lübeck - a position that meant managing the church's tile works, which sold bricks to Scandinavia. In 1509 he was referred to as dead.

There are only 3 works, still existing, that are demonstrably made by Notke:

The Man of Sorrows from the High Altar in the Church of the Holy Ghost in Tallinn, click the coloured areas.
The Man of Sorrows in Tallinn
Man of sorrows The instruments of passion

Naturally Notke has made more than these 3 works, but some are lost and for a lot of works the artist is simply unknown. Three works that often are attributed to Notke are St. George and the Dragon in Stockholm, The Mass of St. Gregory and The Trinity Altarpiece in Lübeck. The big question (when it comes to this site) is whether Bernt Notke painted the dances of death in Lübeck and Tallinn

Sources used in this section about Notke

The Triumphal Cross.
The Triumphal Cross

In this Section about Bernt Notke:

Outside this Section about Bernt Notke: