Lübeck's Dance of Death

The Trinity Altarpiece

Schonenfahrer (Scania traveller) altarpiece.
Schonenfahrer (Scania traveller) altarpiece.
The altarpiece in 1906.
The altarpiece in 1906

All that is left of the Schonenfahrer (Scania traveller) altar are the two tables that today are exhibited in the St. Annenmuseum in Lübeck. Both paintings show God, Jesus and The Holy Spirit (as a dove) - therefore it's also known as the Trinity altarpiece.

The right side shows the baptism of Jesus. The "word balloon" below God says »hic est Filius meus dilectus«. This is from Matthew 3,17: »And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased«.

The left side is from after the crucifixion. It seems illogical, that the baptism, which took place first, has been placed to the right, while the death of Christ has been placed to the left. As the black and white photo to the right shows, the tables used to be arranged more "logically", but today they are displayed historically correct. Another thing that may puzzle a modern audience is that Jesus does not have the same face on both paintings.

Did Bernt Notke paint the altarpiece?

The emperor from Tallinn.
The emperor from Tallinn
God, from the Schonenfahrer altarpiece.
The face of God

The image of God is very similar to that of the emperor from the dance of death in Tallinn. Art historians are quick to tell us that this is not just a superficial similarity - but that the same techniques have been employed in both paintings.

The logic escapes me: We are told that Notke must have painted the altarpiece because a face looks like another face from the dance of death in Tallinn. If you study the pictures above from Jesus' baptism and crucifixion, the two paintings show a very different face on Jesus. Are we then to conclude that Notke has only executed one of the sides of the altar? And which side did Notke make then?

Besides, art historians are on very shaky grounds, when they compare with the dance of death in Tallinn, as long as it hasn't been proved that Notke painted the dances of death in Lübeck and Tallinn.


Corpse from the Saint George group.
Corpse from the Saint George group
Pope Gregory the Great.
Twins, separated at birth?
Pope Gregory the Great

One should be very careful about drawing conclusions based on perceived similarities between faces. Carl Georg Heise (the genius behind the theory about the dance of death in Tallinn being a remnant of the dance of death in Lübeck) thought that one of the corpses below the dragon in the Saint George group in Stockholm (picture to the left) reminded him of pope Gregory the Great in the Mass of Gregory (to the right).

This made him conclude, "so wird es nicht schwer zu glauben, daß es der gleiche Meister gewesen ist, der hier das Schnitzmesser und dort den Pinsel geführt hat." - i.e. that it was the same artist who had wielded the carving knife in Sweden as well as the paintbrush in Lübeck.

Jan Svanberg(1) on the other hand, writes about the realistic body parts in the Saint George group: »they are rendered with such ghastly realism that it must imply studies made directly after real life, maybe on Stockholm's gallows-hill. The same holds true for a whole bust of dead man, which stands on the base plate - with dangling head - as if it had been a study of a man cut down from the gallows-rope.«

If both scholars are right, we are forced to conclude that Notke has used a hanged criminal from Stockholm's gallows-hill as a model for Pope Gregory the Great!

Further information:

Footnotes: (1)

In the book Sankt Göran och draken, 1993, Jan Svanberg writes "De är återgivna med en så kuslig realism att den måste förudsätte studier gjorda direkt efter verkligheten, kanske på Stockholms galgbacke. Detsamme gäller om en hel byst av en död man, som står på markplattan, med huvudet slokande som vore det studerat efter huvudet på en från galgrepet nedskuren man".