Danse Macabre

Danse_macabre_by_Michael_WolgemutMichael Wolgemut, 1493

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”.

You can find more to read about it here:  Death Reference

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.

600px-Thetriumphofdeath

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.

22 thoughts on “Danse Macabre

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  1. Hi Cindy! Hmmm, I don’t know if I have a favorite but The Seventh Seal sounds intriguing, I’ve been curious about that one for a while. Great post, as always!

    1. Thanks, my friend. The 7th Seal is awesome. Just the black and white contrast alone makes it worth the watch. The story line and chess game–it’s true art. Hope you get to watch it soon. 😉

      1. Yeah I just might, someone has recommended that to me as well.

        Btw, I have a bit of a crush on one of the actors I interviewed, I didn’t want to say that in the comment on my post in case he reads it, ahah. He’s way too young for me tho, ha..ha.. Well I think you’ll know which one it is soon enough, if you want to take a guess, he’s in one of the photos I posted 😉

          1. Mwahahahaha!! NOOO!! Bill is a friend of mine, he’s one of the film fest’s organizers and he’s um, not interested in women shall we say. I just realized I haven’t posted the selfie pic w/ this said actor. But I did post it on my FB: https://www.facebook.com/FlixChatterBlog I wonder if you know which one, again he’s much younger than me 😉

          2. Sorry, wrong again 😀 I mean I like him a lot, but not really a crush, no. Ok here’s a hint: he’s got a pair of amazingly gorgeous blue eyes! 😉

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Teny! The eye in the wings, the sandy heart, the raspy voice and delicate disappearance gave the Angel of Death a creepy, yet elegant and entrancing presence.

  2. Good post! You know, I read King’s ‘Danse Macabre’ years ago – as I recall, it was a pretty good book about the writing of horror and some of the writers who excel at it. I think I need to look that book up again. Happy Halloween Week!

    1. Me, too. I picked it up and looked a few pages inside and then placed it on my stack to read and life went on. Now I think I would fully appreciate it. I do love Stephen King short stories and I’ve read a few of his novels.

    1. Hi Sheryl!
      I found the Cornell library special collections fascinating. It’s the one thing we can’t escape (except taxes) and seems to be on everyone’s thoughts. Thanks for commenting 🙂

    1. Hahahaha. What a nice side trip. Zombies. Who’d of thought there was really such a thing?

      “this term designates a “living-dead,” or, figuratively, a person devoid of any will or character. According to traditional Haitian beliefs, a person might be “zombified” by a bokor (the Voodoo equivalent of a sorcerer). Through the use of dark magic, the bokor brings the victim into a state of near-death or deep coma. The victim’s family and community bury him/her, thinking that he/she is dead. But the bokor subsequently digs up and revives the victim as a zombie: a state under which he/she is devoid of free will and does whatever the bokor tells him/her to do.

      It is unclear how a bokor induces his victim’s near-death state, but it appears to be through the use of potions. One theory is that zombification results from the ingestion of tetradotoxin, a chemical extracted from puffer fish (Dr. Saint- Gérard attributes this theory to American botanist Wade Davis). In any case, it seems that zombification comes from ingesting, as stated by article 246 of the Haitian Criminal Code, “substances which, without giving death, will cause a more-or-less prolonged state of lethargy.” — reminds me of Romeo and Juliet and African toxic potions that reduces to a temporary catatonic coma. I bet there’s an Asian version of this phenomena, too. It is bizarre our current infatuation with all things dead and undead. Thanks for the contribution! Happy Halloween 🙂

      1. According to Wikipedia, “The Mill and the Cross” was inspired by Peter Brueghel the Elder’s painting “The Procession to Calvary” completed in 1564.

        I confused “The Procession to Calvary” with Brueghel’s “The Triumph of Death”, completed circa 1562 that you included in your post. Two different paintings, completed two years apart, but to me they depict similar ideas.

        I apologize for my confusion. Nonetheless, I believe that scenes in “The Mill and the Cross” were heavily influences, sans skeletons, by those depicted in “The Triumph of Death”.

  3. Hi, Cindy:

    King’s ‘Danse Macabre’ is a terrific reference book and personal slice of opinionated favorites that made up the grist for most of what is horror, terror, anthology and Science Fiction enjoyed through books, film and television of the 1950s through 80s.

    Wholeheartedly agree with King’s assessment that H.P. Lovecraft is the great grandfather of Sci-Fi and horror. His tales move at their own pace. But the pay offs are well worth the effort and patience of getting there!

    Bloch is more contemporary and accessible. Harlan Ellison is more off the wall. And better suited to film and television. While James Herbert’s pulpy paperbacks about terror in the UK (‘The Rats’, ‘The Fog’, ‘The Lair’, etc. ruled through the 1970s and 80s. Search a group of Canadian lawyers writing under the name “Michael Slade” for so real gruesome (‘Ghoul’. ‘Headhunter’, ‘Ripper’) tales. Specializing in “multiple personality” and the “insanity defense”. Their novels are incredibly well researched and full of rich and heroic characters!

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