Lübeck's Dance of Death

Lubeck's dance of death, Pope and emperor
Pope and emperor.
The chapel

Death to everybody

To dussem dantse rope ik al gemene
Pawes keiser unde alle creaturen
Arm ryke groet unde kleine
Tredet vort went iu en helpet nen truren
Men dencket wol in aller tyd
Dat gy gude werke myt iu bringen
Unde juwer sunden werden quyd
Went gy moten na myner pypen springen
I call everybody to this dance
pope, emperor and all creatures,
poor, rich, great and small.
Step forward, because grieving doesn't help you!
But consider well, at all times,
that you bring good works with you,(1)
and become free of your sins,
because you must dance to my pipe.

Death to the pope

Her pawes, du byst hogest nu
Dantse wy voer ik unde du
Al hevestu in godes stede staen
Een erdesch vader ere unde werdicheit untfaen
Van alder werlt du most my
Volghen unde werden als ik sy
Dyn losent unde bindent dat was vast
Der hoecheit werstu nu een gast
Mr pope, you are the highest now,
let us lead the dance, I and you!
Though you have stood in God's stead,
an earthly father, honour and dignity received
from the whole world, you must
follow me and become, as I am.
Your loosing and binding, that was firm(2)
The highness you will lose now.(3)

The Pope

Och Here got wat is min bate
al was ik hoch geresen in state
Unde ik altohant moet werden
gelik als du een slim der erden(4)
Mi mach hocheit noch rickheit baten
wente al dink mot ik nalaten
Nemet hir excempel de na mi sit
pawes alse ik was mine tit
Oh Lord, what does it avail me
though I had risen high in station,
and I must at once become
like you, a pile of earth.
Neither highness nor riches avail me,
when I must leave everything.
Take here example, those who after me are
pope, as I was in my time!

Death answers the pope

(7 lines are missing)
her keiser, wi mote dansen
(7 lines are missing)
Mr emperor, we must dance!

The emperor

O dot du letlike figure
vor andert my alle myne natture
Ik was mechtich unde rike
hogest van machte sunder gelike
Koninge vorsten unde heren
mosten my nigen unde eren
Nu kumstu, vreselike forme
van mi to maken spise der worme
Oh Death, your terrible figure
changes for me all my nature.
I was mighty and rich,
The highest in power without peer.
Kings, princes and lords
had to bow for me and honour me.
Now you come, you horrible form,
to make me food for worms.

Death answers the emperor

Du werst gekoren wil dat vroden
to beschermen unde to behoden
De hilgen kerken de kerstenheit
myt deme swerde der rechticheit
Men hovardie heft di vor blent
du heft di sulven nicht gekent
Mine kumste was nicht in dinem sinne
du ker nu her, frow keiserinne!
You were chosen, will you realize that,
to protect and preserve
the holy churches of Christianity
with the sword of justice.
But haughtiness has blinded you,
you have not recognised yourself.
My arrival was not on your mind!
Turn here now, Mrs. Empress!

The red area shows the location in the chapel
The red area shows the location in the chapel

Death playing the flute The dance of death starts on the west wall of the chapel in the Marienkirche in Lübeck. This page and the following are illustrated with photos taken by Wilhelm Castelli between the two world wars. They appear in several books - including Bernt Notke und sein Kreis a Walter Paatz, Berlin 1939. The pictures look a little "creased" because they are photographs of a church wall. The picture to the left shows the start of the procession; Notice the hourglass.

The text is still from the fragment in Tallinn, except for Death's first 4 lines, which also survive from Lübeck. Under the painting was a High German text written by Nathanael Schlott, but for some reason Paatz has removed this text from his reproduction.

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

Good works...: Death gives us a message from his sponsor - the Catholic Church. See the moral of the story.
Loosing and binding...: Compare with Jesus' words to Peter the Apostle: "And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven" (Matthew 16,19).

"To bind" means to make unlawful, and "to loose" means to make lawful. The pope is a successor of Peter the Apostle, so what it means, in effect, is that whatsoever rules the pope maketh up shall receive the Divine rubberstamp of instant approval.

Literally: "you were now [only] a guest [of] the highness".
slim der erden...: Compare with Genesis 2,7: »And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth«. "Slime" means »Soft, moist earth or clay, having an adhesive quality; viscous mud« (Webster).

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