Triumph and dance of Death

Added 2020-03-17 in by Kamil Kusztal

Medieval and Renaissance view on the phenomenon of transience.

 In the public opinion, the belief that the average life expectancy of people in the times of knights, great poets, battles and court intrigues was much shorter than in modern times. Today's scientists often challenge this theory and find it too simplistic. Statistics are heavily manipulated by the high mortality rate of people in childhood and the elderly. However, this doesn't exclude the fact that people lived to their very old age. Despite this, the huge number of armed conflicts, let's call it a poor state of public safety and health care, low awareness of hygiene and a healthy lifestyle, noticeable class differences and the important role of religion in social life, caused that the topic of death took an important place in everyday life. It isn't wonder then that it also became an inspiration for artists who quite readily reached for it when they created their works. In present times of dubious condition of civilization, it is worth returning to the painting ideas about transience, especially those of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

 "The Legend of Three Living and Three Dead" is most likely a French story from the 13th century. It presents a fairly simple plot about three riders - the king, pope and prince (characters differ in other versions, but usually they are representatives of high states), While traveling, they accidentally find themselves in a cemetery where they meet three dead clergy representatives. The corpses engage in dialogue with rich men and call them to regret and change their priorities. After the conversation, only one of them decides to change what his comrades consider treason and decide to kill him. After committing a criminal act, God sends them a death that "triumphs over all mankind." This story is treated as the genesis of a painting motif called "the triumph of death."

 The triumph of death became popular in iconography in the fourteenth century. Paintings inspired by this motif often adorned cemeteries and church walls. They showed death as a skeleton shoting at people from a bow (photo on the left) riding a bullock or a wagon covered in mourning shrouds. However, one of the most popular paintings of this trend is the work of the Dutch painter - Pieter Bruegel the Elder (photo on the right). The work was created in 1562 as an artist's reaction to the difficult political situation in the Netherlands. The picture shows the great battle between humanity and death - materialized in the form of huge host of skeletons. The whole battle takes place in a devastated, apocalyptic scenery. Despite the fierce battle, people fall under the pressure of an enemy shockwave. It is worth mentioning that by presenting the victims of extermination, the painter portrays members of all states. Kings, clergymen, knights, aristocracy as well as burghers, peasantry and even innocent children are victims of the Death Army. In the central point we see Death with a scythe on a skinny horse (which refers to the first interpretations of the triumph of death), leading his army, which drives humanity like cattle, to a large coffin with no visible bottom. A unique scene takes place in the lower right corner. A couple of people in love are hiding there. They don't seem to see the disaster surrounding them. They are staring at each other, but this doesn't change the fact that death will get them anyway, moreover, it is already behind them. Death in the eyes of the artist is an extremely powerful and destructive force. The whole work that we can see today, in the Spanish Prado Museum in Madrid, has a clearly pathetic character.

 At the end of the Middle Ages, a new way of presenting death became popular, called danse macabre (death dance). Despite the relative similarities to triumph, such as the ruthlessness of Death to all social states, dance is the opposite of triumph. In this iconographic approach, death isn't a great force that surprises man. Transience is an obvious aspect of life that everyone accepts. We surrender to death without resistance and join her dance procession. The moment of death is fleeting. As in the case of triumph, the illustrations of danse macabre also decorated the cemetery chapels, walls surrounding burial sites and morgues.      

 One of the most popular death dance images was made by Hans Holbein. The first issue "Les Simulachres & historiees faces de la mort" appeared in Lyon in 1538, printed by Melchior and Gaspar Trechsel, and published by booksellers Jean and François Frellon. The series consisted of 41 woodcuts to which were added ten new ones later. The series of illustrations opened with scenes of the biblical creation of the first people and committing original sin. On the third woodcut, during the exile of Adam and Eve from Paradise, Death appeared. This resonates exceptionally with Christian theology in which death is the inevitable aftermath of eating the forbidden fruit. Ultimately, Holbein manages to include new content in his work. According to the artist, death is indefinite and ambiguous. Accompanies people in their lives, helps Adam, for example, grub up the forest, but at the same time is dynamic, in constant motion - kidnaps clergy, pierces the knight with a lance or gently guides the old man across the border of life and death. Takes different forms. Once we can see her in the bishop's costume, elsewhere he appears to us as a scholar or a clown. Despite being indefinite, she isn't scary, moreover, the characters in some scenes don't seem to notice her presence at all. Man is more concerned about the usual stimuli of everyday life that surround him than the unchanging laws of reality, which is definitely the phenomenon of death.

 Transience as the absolute law of nature inspired many artists, both those who preceded Holbein and Bruegel, as well as those who came after them. There is something aesthetically appealing in this depressing and sometimes frightening phenomenon, which is why it becomes so attractive, especially in the context of painting, which has often proved that it can freeze on canvas what is indescribable and abstract.