Lübeck's Dance of Death

Bernt Notke and The Dances of Death

Summary: The received wisdom has it that Bernt Notke is the creator of the dances of death in Lübeck and Tallinn - but the authorities are a bit thin in the evidence department. The answer is connected with another question, namely: is the fragment in Tallinn a remnant of the painting in Lübeck.

Did Notke paint the Dance of Death in Tallinn?

The Man of Sorrows from the High Altar in the Church of the Holy Ghost in Tallinn. Click top or bottom half.
The Man of Sorrows in Tallinn
Man of sorrows The instruments of passion
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

We don't know. Normally one would compare with known works by the same artist, but in the case of Bernt Notke nobody knows exactly which parts of the 3 certified works are executed by Notke himself.

No one thinks that Notke, single-handedly, has created the 12-meter high altar in Århus - with 1,000 carved and painted figures and with the smith's works and the paintings. Notke's role has been that of a contractor who has taken the assignment and who has hired wood carvers, painters, smiths etc. etc. For all we know, Notke may not have made a single brushstroke - just as he didn't have to bake bricks when he was a churchwarden - or coin money as a mintmaster.

Therefore art historians have to guess which parts of these 3 works reveal "the hand of Notke" in order to compare with other works - often based on small photos or on second-hand descriptions. Even if they should travel to Århus and Tallinn it's still a difficult task to identify the individual "hands" at 12 meters height - without knowing which parts of the painting are original and which parts are later reparations.(1)

The result is often a circular argument along the line: "Bernt Notke must have been a mysterious and demonical human since he painted the dance of death — and the dance of death must have been painted by Bernt Notke because it exemplifies the mysterious and demoniacal aspects so typical for Bernt Notke".

It is thought-provoking that Notke isn't mentioned in the 55 volumes of Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie from the 1880's — but after Notke was "re-discovered" in 1887, there has been no end to the painter- /woodcarver- / goldsmith-works that have been assigned to this "Michelangelo of the North".

Did Notke paint the Dance of Death in Lübeck?

Tallinn: Dogs and humans in the background (after the pope).
Humans and dogs

This is even more uncertain — since we only know this painting through black and white photos of Anton Wortmann's copy. This gives the art historians free reins: All that is good in the painting proves that it was created by the mysterious and demoniacal Bernt Notke - and all that is bad is blamed on Wortmann.

Originally the dark and gloomy colours in the Tallinn fragment were taken as proof of Notke's twisted mentality — whereas the lighter colours in Lübeck where blamed on cloying Wortmann. When the Tallinn fragment was restored — and several layers of dirt and old varnish were removed - green grass and blue sky appeared. That was the end of that theory.

Why did anybody think of Notke in the first place? Explanation follows:

On 14th April 1467 Notke complained to Lübeck's city council that the painters guild were harassing his apprentices because he was not a member of the guild. The council ruled that Notke's apprentices should be worthy of becoming self-employed masters in the guild.(2)

The empress, Lübeck The empress, Tallinn Notke's first biographer, Friedrich Bruuns, thought that Notke had been favoured by the council. Now, what could Notke have done to become favoured by the council? Bruuns suggested that »only with all reserve might [we] here hint at the possibility that Notke could have participated in the execution of the dance of death dated from 1463«.(3) This idea was taken up by Carl Georg Heise (p. 195) who forgot all about "reserve" and "possibility". Heise concluded that the fragment in Tallinn was a remnant of Lübeck's painting from 1463 - and that Notke had created (not just contributed to) them both.

Heise's theory was based on misquotes, loose claims and lack of logic. It was totally disproved when the fragment in Tallinn was restored in 1962-64. Scholars have long ago discarded Heise's theory, but for some strange reason Notke's name has stuck to both paintings since then.

In reality the ruling from 1467 was business-as-usual and had nothing to do with the city council "favouring a great artist": A craftsman, Notke, was attracted to the imperial and free city, Lübeck; the guilds were trying to stifle competition; and the city council — who wanted lower prices through increased competition — ruled in favour of the newcomer.

If anything, this document proves that Notke did not paint the dance of death. If Notke had executed the painting in 1463 then it follows that he must have worked outside the guild for at least 4 years — which is just as improbable as the thought that the church would assign the responsibility for such a grand work in the main church of Lübeck to an unknown artist -— who was not a member of the guild.

Who painted the Dances of Death then?

The Emperor from Tallinn.
The Emperor
God, from the Trinity altarpiece.
The face of God

If we want to point to a single individual who could be responsible for both paintings, Notke is not a bad candidate - having delivered works to both Lübeck and Tallinn.

The problem is that the idea of a single creative genius is a modern concept. The three works that are genuine dyed-in-the-wool Notke-works are all collaborations. Two times he worked as a contractor and once as a sub-contractor.

The painter / wood carver of the Middle Ages was a craftsman - organised in guilds like the baker and the cooper. And above all he was a team player, working anonymously. It's true that Notke left his name inside the figure of John in the triumphal cross — but this is no different from a bricklayer leaving his name inside the cornerstone of a building. All that really can be said is that the paintings are collective works - reflecting the teamwork, the imagery and the skilled craft of Northern Germany in the Late Middle Ages. The two paintings appear identical because they are based on the same pattern.

To me, there's a certain poetic justice in this: The dance of death as a genre is a mirror of society - and the physical painting itself is also a reflection of that same society.

Further information:

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

To my mind there's an analogy between these witch doctors and the people who, based upon a transcription, claim that Dodendantz is older than Des dodes dantz.
Bernd Notke is mentioned 14th April 1467, where he is evidently not a member of the guild: Witlick zij dat int jar LXVII des dinxedages na deme sondage Misericordia Domini de beschedene Bernd Notiken eyn meler to Lubeke vor deme ersamen rade darsulves to Lubeke is erschenen, togende darzulves zinen bord breff van deme ersamen rade to Lassan versegelt, den de rad to Lubeke na vorhoringe gedelet hefft bij werde under vuller macht unde hefft deme sulfften Bernde dar upp affgesecht, dat zine knechte, de eme to zineme ampte des malwerkes denen, sodanes eres denstes, dat ze myt Bernde denen, nicht entgelden, sunder in deme ampte der meler eres zulves to werdende woll werdich zin schollen, in deme se des myt unseren edder anders war mede nicht en vorwerken, unde sede ok furder: weret zake, dat jemand van den olderluden der meler edder des amptes ingesetene den obgenannten Bernde Notiken worumme wolde beschuldigen, de scholde dat don vor deme rade to Lubeke unde anders nergene. Iussu consulum.
(Urkundenbuch der Stadt Lübeck, Volume 11, no. 240)
Friedrich Bruuns, Meister Bernt Notkes Leben (1923) page 29: »Nur mit aller Zurückhaltung möge hier die Möglichkeit angedeutet werden, daß Notke an der ausführung des von 1463 datierten Totentanzes beteiligt gewesen sein kann.«