Monday, 31 October 2016

Danse Macabre - The Dance of Death

 A brief article on the Medieval genre of the Danse Macabre and a poem titled by the same name.

Lübecker Totentanz (Detail), Bernt Notke ~1463.

The Danse Macabre (French) or the Dance of Death, was a genre of art that flourished in late-medieval Europe, in which an allegorical motif of the inevitability and suddenness of death was expounded in paintings, prints, songs and poems. The Danse Macabre involved figures who were dead, or “personified Death summoning representatives from all walks of life to dance along to the grave, typically with a pope, emperor, king, child, and labourer.”[1] The inclusion of people from all spheres of social and religious profiles articulated the universality of death, which comes equally to all.

The Danse Macabre was a reminder of the immanence of death, and were produced in various artistic forms – especially visual and orally – “to remind people of the fragility of their lives,” the importance of using the time one has for good before the judgement, “and how vain were the glories of earthly life.”[2] Such thoughts dominated mid to late medieval life, in the face of the Bubonic Plague which killed up to a third of Europe’s population, and which resurfaced at various intervals over the centuries in death casing bouts.

The dance of death itself, was also an allegory inciting the acceptance of death in those whose souls abided in their mortal frames. Depictions of this ‘dance’ sometimes played out literally in forms of dancing skeletons or corpses, or conceptually by the fact of a dead figure seeking to awaken the living to the music of eternity by means of accepting to dance with death – that is, to adjust one’s steps in life in view of their mortality.

Detail of a miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead, c. 1308 – c. 1340, Arundel MS 83.

The Three Living and the Three Dead was among the most popular legends which was often depicted in varying accounts in the form of frescos. Generally, the scene is portrayed where three young gentlemen on horseback meet three cadavers who are sometimes described as their ancestors, who warn them with the words: “Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eritis” – “What we were, you are; what we are, you will be.”[3]

The Danse Macabre is by no means an irrelevant quirk of the past, since death remains as inevitably and universally apart of life today as it did then. Our Medieval predecessors are often dismissed as ignorant and superstitious; yet there is a superior wisdom that flourished in the Medieval world – a wisdom that comes from the cognisance of death which carries with it an awareness of the place of temporal goods and life, not as a hedonistic end, but as a means towards something greater that demands us to live ethically and prayerfully in stride with the transcendent. A rendering of Ecclesiastes 7:4 speaks of such wisdom: “He is wise who ponders his death”.

Hans Holbein Engraving, 1549.
In our own time it is necessary to stir up this wisdom shunned through a denial and fear of mortality.  Or else it is pushed aside by its pseudo-counterpart that consists in a nihilistic despair that convinces itself death in and of itself gives meaning to life. Whereas if the grave is the final end, then it renders vain life itself, making its meaning no more than a construct passed down through a legacy that will likely be forgotten. Yet intrinsic and universal to the human heart are desires for eternal things - for endless happiness, relationship, and fulfillment. No intrinsically universal desire is an imaginary construct for non-existent realities. For just as the intrinsic thirst for water exists within us because water exists and we need it; likewise, the intrinsic thirst for eternity exists within us because eternity is real and we were made for it. The Danse Macabre imparts this wisdom which consists in reminding us of our mortality, but always in view of our eternity.

It seems pertinent to bring back from the grave of the past the Danse Macabre and to carry on in this tradition, by formulating our own like-imageries of faith. For through such frescoes, which above all must be painted on the ceiling of our minds, God sacramentally invites us to the dance with death – with the selflessness of the Cross. A dance of resignation, acceptance, and delight, through which we come to enter into the mystery of eternal life, because by dancing with the Cross of Death we dance with Christ who says of Himself “I am the resurrection and the life.” (Jn 11:25).

The following poem is written in light of the tradition of the Danse Macabre.

The night was thick, but moon cut through,
Illumining in dark a view,
An ancient scene that feels quite new
That’s carried on since Eden’s rue.

The skeletons awake from tombs once sealed,
No lovely flesh their bones revealed,
They scatter here and scatter there
Like swarm of hare that climb the burrow stair.

Across the grandest floor of hall of life,
Towards their partners scared with strife,
Each swans forth with strides and a leap
As face to skull these destined partners meet.

With a bow, each boned figure states not name
But their once state in life and fame,
An address which ironically
Mirrors their mortal friend identically.

With outstretched hand, and sockets bare that glance,
Extends invite to join the dance –
Some stand stiff whilst others decline,
And few there are who gladly join the line.

Yet nonetheless the song that played from womb,
Its coda starts which ends in tomb,
And those who hand refused to take,
Are took in force by ministers of fate.

And none are left out, discriminated,
For poor and rich alike share bed
Of dirt where all will rest – since Pope,
King, and labourer all form this dance troupe.

What contrast ‘twix the skeletons and folk!
The first who gaily dance and dote,
Smiling so it seems – posture bright,
Whilst limp-sullen partners are pale with fright.

“Must I dance now, when I have much to do?”
Say some whilst dragged through festal que.
“I cannot go! Please come back soon!”
Say others scared who fear impending doom.

Yet the pipes, the violins, harp and flute,
Cymbals and fiddles resolute
Carry on, so the dance goes on,
Heedless to the cries of the summoned one.

A rare spectacle indeed are the few
Who ready and eager stepped in que.
The joy and elegance of these
Exceeds their escorts dead who seem thus pleased.

And Ah! not long has passed from dance's start
When sounds the finest key of art,
Whereat each skeletal lead, spins
Their partner, holding high their hand and sins,

And letting go, the final note is struck
Whence hand in ribs skeletons tuck
Whilst other hand outlaid they bow,
As partner breathes their last and falls to ground.

“What a dance! What a dance! And all must dance.”
Each skeleton in chorus chants.
As vultures come and take the clothes
And rings, flesh, and home from newly disclosed.

Then skeletons return to sleep,
Carrying with them to grave deep
Their newly gathered brethren
Whose souls have flown to meet their en’.

[1] “Danse Macabre,”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.