Death personified in art began in the 14th century and swept through European churches and buildings as frescoes, oil and wood paintings and metal engravings. The Dance of Death is a universal theme of humanity seen throughout the centuries visible in artwork, story-telling and pop-culture. Cornell University Library has an outstanding site featuring the history and art behind this human fascination. 295 examples are here including beasts, werewolves, demons here: Cornell University Library, Special Collections
Danse Macabre images from the Middle Ages were a reaction to European catastrophes like the Black Death and Hundred Years’ War between the Plantagenets of England and the Valois of France. Death was a constant companion because life was brief and harsh. These images portray death serving different functions which is a fascinating subject to analyze.
Impartial to human position, Death comes to everyone including the Pope, the noble, and the serf. Those who did survive the plague became richer and stronger. The dance, then, is a sign of human resiliency to “laugh at the face of death”.
Michael Jackson‘s 1996 short film Ghosts is a Danse Macabre with help from the story by Stephen King and the visual effects of the late great Stan Winston. Here’s a trailer:
Danse Macabre and the Grim Reaper have a long history in pop-culture films, music, books, and comics.
My favorite Danse Macabre painting by Peter the Elder, The Triumph of Death.
What about Grim Reapers in film?
We’ve laughed and cringed at the face of death for hundreds of years. What are your favorite examples of Grim Reapers and Danse Macabre? Happy Halloween.