Dating the Danse Macabre

The danse on the wall of Cimetière des Innocents in Paris is the oldest datable dance of death. In comparison, the dance in Basel is approximately from 1440, and is probably based on an earlier version with 24 people as in Heidelberg's block book, which in turn is based on a series of monologues like the CPG 314, which in turn is based on a Latin original. But we do not know when the dance in Basel was painted - it's only a guess - and we do not have these earlier manuscripts.(1)

Memoires pour servir, 1425
Memoires pour servir à l'histoire

In contrast, we have no previous versions of Danse Macabre. For all we know it might have originated in its finished form, complete with authority, 30 dancers and the dead king. And we know exactly when this happened. In a chronicle we read the following entry from 1425:

Item, l'an 1424. fut faite la Dance maratre [sic] aux Innocens, & fut commencée environ le moys d'Aoust, & achevée en Karesme ensuivant.
(Memoires pour servir à l'histoire de France et de Bourgogne, 1729, page 103)

The work was begun in August 1424 and was finished at Lent the following year. And if one wants to argue that this "Dance Maratre" might not have been a painting, but maybe a "live" (if you'll pardon the expression) performance (that lasted half a year!), then the chronicle has another entry from the cemetery a few years later, in 1429:

Memoires pour servir, 1429
Memoires pour servir à l'histoire

Item, […] un Cordelier nommé frere Richart, […] commença le Sabmedy seiziesme jour d'Avril 1429. à Sainte Genevieve, & le Dimenche ensuivant & la sepmaine ensuivant; c'est assavoir le Lundi, le Mardy, le Mercredy, le Jeudy, le Vendredy, le Sabmedy, le Dimanche aux Innocens, & commençoit son Sermon environ cinq heures au matin, & duroit jusques entre dix & onze, & y avoit toujours quelques cinq ou six mille personnes à son Sermon, & estoit monté quant il preschoit, sur ung hault eschaffault qui estoit près de toise & demie de hault, le dos tourné vers les Charniers encontre la Charronnerie à l'endroit de la Dance macabre.
(Memoires pour servir à l'histoire de France et de Bourgogne, 1729, pages 119-120)

The chronicler tells us that people showed up at 5 o'clock in the morning, for eight days in a row, to listen to the good Franciscan monk for 5-6 hours every day, and that brother Richart held his sermon for 5-6,000 people without megaphone (twice as many as the Peter the Apostle was able to speak to in Jerusalem just after having received the Holy Spirit).

This incredibly positive story ends by telling that he stood with his back turned toward the ossuaries against la Charronnerie (the street that 100 years later was called La Ferronnerie), and that this took place at La Danse Macabre.

We also have a source from 1434, namely the historian Guillebert de Metz, who while describing the old Paris comes to St. Innocents: »Illec sont paintures notables de la danse macabre et autres avec escriptures pour émouvoir les gens à dévocion« ("On this place are notable paintings of the danse macabre and others, with inscriptions to move people to devotion").(2)

Furthermore the painting is mentioned in a novel:

An artist' representation of what the dance in St. Innocents' cemetery may have looked like.
Innocents, Ossuary

& sur tout on les voit par bandes & regimens, comme estourneaux, se promenans aux Cloistres sainct Innocent à Paris auec les trespassez & secretaires des chambrieres visitans la dance Marcade, Poëte Parisien, que ce sauant et belliqueux Roy Charles le quint y fit peindre, où sont representees au vif les effigies des hommes de marque de ce temps là, & qui dansent en la main de la Mort.

(Noël du Fail, Les Contes et Discours d'Eutrapel, 1585(3))

The last quote is not quite as convincing as the others. Partly because it's newer, partly because the words are spoken by a fictitious person, partly because it says »la danse Marcade«, and partly because it says that the painting was commissioned under Charles V, even though he died in 1380. Nevertheless, the message is clear enough: La Danse Macabre was neither a play nor a sculpture, but a painting.

The painting was completed in the Lent of 1425. We are not told whether the dance started along with the carnival antics, or whether the skinny cadavers were presented during the Lent.

This was a relatively quiet period during the 100-year war, and both text and images are filled with satire and slapstick. The chubby abbot is told that the fattest is the first to rot, »Le plus gras est premier pourry«. Death makes eyes(!) at the knight and tugs the urineglass-carrying physician by his crotch.

The Demolition

Demolition in Basel. "Dessinée d'après nature".
Feyerabend, Destruction

When it comes to the destruction of the painting, the situation is again the opposite of that in Basel, but this time reversed. In Basel we know the exact date of the demolition, we have several (imaginative) images of the action, "Dessinée d'après nature", by the very people who participated. We have detailed descriptions of who took what number of boards and bricks. We know who took the 23 fragments, 19 of which still exist.

In contrast, nobody knows when the painting in Paris disappeared. Sophie Oosterwijk (see external link) writes »sources disagree« and then proceeds to sum up the confusion in a footnote:

Lexclamation des os sainct Innocent.
St. Innocents, Sainct Innocent

For example, G. Kaiser (ed.), Der tanzende Tod. Mittelalterliche Totentänze (Frankfurt am Main, 1983), p. 71, claims it happened as early as 1529. Instead, B. and H. Utzinger, Itinéraires des danses macabres (, 1996), p. 83, and J.M. Clark, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Glasgow, 1950), p. 24, state that the mural was lost in 1669 when the charnel-houses on the south side were demolished in order to widen the rue de la Ferronnerie, which R. Hammerstein, Tanz und Musik des Todes: die mittelalterlichen Totentänze und ihr Nachleben (Bern/Munich, 1980), p. 167, claims to have happened in 1634. I. le Masne de Chermont, 'La danse macabre du cimetière des Innocents', in Fleury and Leproux, Les Saints-Innocents, pp. 84-109, at p. 101, confirms 1669 as the date. […]

(Sophie Oosterwijk, 'Depicte ones on a walle': the Danse Macabre in late-medieval Paris, page 88, footnote 20)

1529, 1634 or 1669? Let's take the years in reverse order:


St. Innocents, 1550. The Danse Macabre was placed along the Rue de la Ferronnerie. Marked with red at the right of the picture.
Innocents, Innocents 1550

It is as certain as anything can be that the cemetery wall on the Rue de la Ferronnerie was demolished in 1669 when a lot of small houses, shops and stalls were torn down in order to broaden the road. Here is the beginning of the very long and detailed royal ordinance of Louis XIV:

St. Innocents, 1780. Rue de la Ferronnerie has been straightened out, and the ossuaries replaced by houses.
Innocents, Innocents 1780

Le Roy, en son Conseil, ayant aucunement esgard aux requestes qui lui ont esté présentées par les doyens, chanoines et chappitre de Saint Germain l'Auxerrois , a ordonné et ordonne que, suivant leurs offres, ils feront travailler incessamment, à leurs dépens, à l'ouverture et eslargissement de la rue de la Ferronnerie en toute sa longueur, et à la construction des maisons qui termineront ladite rue du costé du cimetière des Saincts Innocents, et pour cet effet, ordonne Sadite Majesté, que ladite rue sera eslargie et conduite en droit alignement, depuis l'extrémité et encoignure de ladite rue de la Lingerie jusqu'à l'autre extrémité du costé de la rue Saint Denis, à chacune desquelles extrémitez aura ladite rue trente pieds (9 m 75) de largeur, et pour ce faire seront démolies les petites maisons, boutiques et échoppes qui sont en ladite rue de la Ferronnerie, adossées contre les murs du charnier dudit cimetière.


Ordonne Sa Majesté, que les ossemens, tombeaux, monumens, épitaphes et inscriptions, qui sont aprésent dans lesdits charniers, seront transférés et restablis sous les autres charniers du costé des rues de la Lingerie(4) et aux Fevres, suivant les consentemens qui en ont esté donnez par les particuliers qui ont leurs sépultures ausdits charniers.


Seguier. Colbert.

Le 18 octobre 1669.

{Archives nationales, E. 424.)

14th May 1610, King Henri IV's assassin is apprehended in St. Innocents' cemetery.
Innocents, 1610

Rue de la Ferronnerie was too narrow for carriages. Already on May 14, 1554, King Henri II had ordered that the street should be broadened, but this never happened. By the irony of fate this led to the assassination of King Henri IV on May 14, 1610, while his wagon was stuck in traffic. The failure of one King Henri led to another King Henri's death on the same date.


This picture from 1786 shows the Vieux Charnier (opposite the no longer existing Charnier des Lingères) just before St. Innocents' church was demolished.
Innocents, Bernier 1786

As Oosterwijk notes, Hammerstein claims that the broadening of the street and the destruction of the wall happened already in 1634. Hammerstein writes: »Das Fresko wurde 1634 anläßlich einer Straßen verbreiterung zusammen mit der ganzen südlichen Galerie beseitigt«.(5) Patrick Layet says the same: »zwischen August 1424 und Ostern 1425 gemalt und 1634 zerstört«, and so does Stefanie Knöll: »um 1424/1425 entstandenen […] im Jahre 1634 zerstört«.(6)

Valentin Dufour can always be counted on to add confusion, and he doesn't let us down this time either:


In 1785/1786 the church was closed. The skeletons were relocated from Le cimetière des Innocents to the catacombs of Paris.

As Oosterwijk notes, Gert Kaiser claims that the painting perished already in 1529. Kaiser writes: »Im Jahre 1529 wird der Totentanz zerstört«(7).

But this is not something that Kaiser has made up himself. A long row of authors are standing in line to deliver the same information, and among these are experts like Hellmut Rosenfeld: »Paris, Beinhaus des Minoritenklosters Aux Saints Innocents (1424), zerstört 1529, Buchausgaben seit 1485«, Brigitte Schulte: »Bereits im Jahre 1529 wurde das Gemälde wieder zerstört« and Peter Walther: »Gemälde vom Pariser Franziskaner-Friedhof »Aux Saints Innocents«, das 1424-25 entstand und bereits 1529 wieder zerstört wurde«.

We just quoted Hammerstein for the fact that the destruction happened in 1634, but we can also quote him for saying that it happened in 1529: »[…] der 1424/25 in Paris in den Arkaden des Beinhauses von Saints Innocents entstandene Totentanz, der bereits 1529 zerstört wurde«.(8)

The number of scholars that agree is large, but two things shine through: one is that nobody are able give any sources for their claim and the second is that almost all of them are German. A quick and very unscientific count of these quotes in Google renders 14 German (including the five just quoted), 2 Spanish, 2 French and 1 Norwegian.

1529, 1634 or 1669?

One must agree with Oosterwijk: »sources disagree«. Let us try to evaluate these three dates:

This painting, which shows a glimpse of the dance, is attributed to Jacob Grimer and is from about about 1570. Photo by Diego Loukota Sanclemente
Innocents, Jakob Grimer

Conclusion: The claims that the painting disappeared in 1529 or that the wall was demolished in 1634 don't make sense. Furthermore the witness of the Clairambault manuscript and the historian Henri Sauval makes it clear that the mural remained on the wall until it was demolished in 1669.

External links

Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)

This discussion of "datable" is based on correspondence with Mischa von Perger.
Quoted from Le Roux de Lincy & Tisserand, page 193.
Noël Du Fail (1520?-1591), Les Contes et discours d'Eutrapel, par le feu seigneur de La Hérissaye, gentilhomme breton, 1585, page 52 (at the end of the chapter named "Des bons larrecins").
His majesty ordered that bones, tombstones, monuments, epitaphs and inscriptions were to be moved away from Charnier des Lingères and reestablished in the ossuaries along the two other sides, Rue de la Lingerie and Rue aux Fevres.

La danse Macabre was placed in Charnier des Lingères, which in spite of the name did not run along Rue de la Lingerie.

Hammerstein: »Totentanzfresken unter den südlichen Arkaden. Gemalt August 1424 - Ostern 1425. Bild und Text, nicht erhalten. Das Fresko wurde 1634 anläßlich einer Straßen verbreiterung zusammen mit der ganzen südlichen Galerie beseitigt. Der Friedhof selbst wurde 1785 […]«.

Reinhold Hammerstein: Tanz und Musik des Todes: die mittelalterlichen Totentänze und ihr Nachleben, 1980, page 167.

Layet: »Das Pariser Gemälde wurde unter den südlichen Arkaden des Friedhofs zwischen August 1424 und Ostern 1425 gemalt und 1634 zerstört. Der begleitende Text ist uns in mehreren Handschriften des 15. Jahrhunderts überliefert«.

Patrick Layet: "Ihr müßt alle nach meiner Pfeife tanzen", 2002, page 28.

Knöll: »Bereits im frühesten bekannten monumentalen Totentanz, dem um 1424/1425 entstandenen Pariser Gemälde, war das Kind Teil der langen Reihe von Personen unterschiedlichster Lebensumstände, die der Tod mit sich nimmt. Obwohl dieser Totentanz im Jahre 1634 zerstört wurde, haben wir durch die 1485 publizierten Holzschnitte von Guyot Marchant […]«.

Stefanie Knöll: Rheinische Hebammengeschichte im Kontext, 1980, page 285

Gert Kaiser: »Im Jahre 1529 wird der Totentanz zerstört. Der Friedhof Aux Innocents wird 1785 aufgelassen, die Gebeine von rund 1,2 Millionen Toten in die alten Steinbrüche von Montrouge unter der Place Deufert-Rochereau im Süden der Stadt gebracht«.

Gert Kaiser, Der tanzende Tod: mittelalterliche Totentänze, 1983, page 71.

Hammerstein: »Belegt ist erst der 1424/25 in Paris in den Arkaden des Beinhauses von Saints Innocents entstandene Totentanz, der bereits 1529 zerstört wurde Doch dürfen wir annehmen, daß die 1485 (2 1486) in Paris gedruckte danse macabre von Guyot Marchant mit ihm weitgehend identisch war. In dieser Gruppe trägt der Tod als Partner keine Musikinstrumente. Nur der Menestrel hat eine […]«.

(Reinhold Hammerstein: Schriften: Musik und Bild, 2000, page 206)

The painting is without signature, monogram, and year.

A previous owner, Alfred Bonnardot, estimated it to be from "around 1570" based on the costumes.