A macabre mystery: the Wellcome Library’s Dance of Death
By Aleksandra Koutny-Jones
A preoccupation with death is a recurring motif in the history of art, and one of its most important manifestations in European art since the 15th century has been the Dance of Death. Depicting living people from all walks of life encountering skeletal figures who force them to engage in a deathly dance, this is a metaphor for the inevitability of our ultimate demise. It was intended to instruct people to live a humble life in the fear of God, and forsake their focus on transient earthly wealth and status.
In the Wellcome Library collections, the Dance of Death is well represented by an 18th-century German oil painting, which comprises a central scene surrounded by a decorative border of figures in roundels. This little-studied artwork has long remained a mystery, as few details about its history were revealed when it was acquired at a London auction house in 1922. By considering the inspiration for its complex design, however, we can learn more about its origins and place within the development of the Dance of Death theme.
The Wellcome painting contains a wide range of memento mori imagery meant to remind the onlooker of death, an impressive feat considering its modest size of 72 cm by 55 cm. Our attention is immediately drawn to the centre of the canvas, where a crowded main scene features a hilly landscape containing an unusual combination of Christian and non- religious imagery. True to its name, the theme of the Dance of Death is represented here with a group of women and skeletons assembled in a circle, holding hands with one another as they perform a jig around an open coffin in which the white bones of a skeleton are prominently displayed. The black crosses and wall that surround the coffin betray the location as a graveyard, with a cemetery chapel visible in the distance. This is a particularly fitting location for the Dance, especially since the theme is thought to have originally derived from the belief that figures of those who would die in the year to come were seen to dance with the dead on St Thomas’s Day (traditionally 21 December). We can tell that those who dance with the skeletons come from all walks of life, since each woman’s social status is betrayed by her clothing: some wear crowns or tiaras on their heads and fine robes lined with ermine, while others are dressed in modest bonnets and aprons. The ubiquity of death is therefore stressed, the message being that none will be spared, regardless of rank.
At the edges of the cemetery landscape, key motifs of the Christian cycle of sin and redemption are depicted. At the bottom left, Adam and Eve pick fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, the Biblical event that brought death into the world, while to the bottom right men and women are shown to suffer the torment of Hell’s flames. At the top left, in contrast, the path to salvation is outlined, with a man and woman praying dutifully beneath a cross bearing the crucified Christ. Lastly, to the top right the clouds separate to reveal the Kingdom of Heaven, the reward for living a Godly life. Cartouches with German text at the top and bottom of the central scene elaborate upon this theological sequence, describing how, through Christ’s sacrifice, death has been destroyed and life regained, while simultaneously reminding us that death and eternal pain in Hell are caused by sin alone. The message of the central scene is clear: in the face of an inevitable death that treats rich and poor alike, the onlooker can take comfort in the fact that the fires of Hell can be escaped by those who choose to lead a pious life.
The border surrounding the central scene is also densely packed with imagery and text, with the principal intention of repeating the message that death is indiscriminate. Twelve roundels show scenes of individual encounters between men of varying social rank and a skeletal figure of Death, which are reflected upon in the textual extracts below each image. The scenes are logically arranged to show the systematic diminishing of earthly status. Clockwise from the top left, where the Pope is depicted, we are shown an emperor, a king, a cardinal, a bishop, a duke, a count, a nobleman, a member of the middle class, a farmer, a soldier with a beggar, and finally a fool with a child. Each scene is set against a background showing buildings that allude to the social position of the individual men: for instance, the king stands in front of a castle. The other overt symbols of earthly status, such as the Pope’s tiara or the king’s crown, are thrown to the ground by the skeletons. The victorious skeletons sometimes trample these attributes of worldly power, mocking the fragility and transience of human achievements. In between the roundels, memento mori symbols are incorporated: at the top, a skull and hourglass; at the base, a skull with a vessel for holy water and an aspergillum with which this water can be sprinkled; to the left, the tools of a gravedigger; and to the right, a bier surrounded by funerary candles. Set against a sombre black background, these macabre symbols remind us of the relentless passing of time and the rites and rituals surrounding death.
Although we do not know the identity of the German artist who executed this painting, it is possible to establish the inspiration for its complex design. While early Dances of Death – the oldest surviving being that at the Abbey Church of La Chaise-Dieu in the Auvergne region of France (c.1470) – were painted as murals on church walls, a fashion soon developed for publishing printed books and images of the theme. Such books and prints were portable and could be bought by people who lived far from the place where the graphic artworks were originally produced. This circulation of images made the theme accessible to a wider general audience and also provided a variety of prototypes for artists, such as the unknown painter who executed the Wellcome Library’s Dance of Death.
Two 18th-century German engravings of the Dance of Death can be identified as a particularly close match for the design of the Wellcome painting, showing the same central scene with women and skeletons dancing in a cemetery, surrounded by a border of roundels interspersed with funerary symbols. Both prints also contain textual captions in German that closely match this painting. It is likely that one of these prints was used as a direct template by the artist, providing him with a coherent black-and-white design that he could convert into a colourful canvas.
The more intricate of the two engravings was produced by the well- known graphic artist Johann Elias Ridinger (1698–1767) of Augsburg, who is most widely remembered as an engraver of hunting scenes. Measuring 67.5 cm by 50 cm, Ridinger’s engraving is only slightly smaller in size than this painting. A more modest interpretation of Ridinger’s design was published by the children of book dealer Johann Peter Wolff (1655–c.1702) in Nuremberg, most likely in the first half of the 18th century. As well as the Wellcome Dance of Death, a painting produced in 1769 for the friary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, near Krakow in Poland, can be closely linked to the design seen in the Wolff and Ridinger engravings. In the Polish canvas, however, the original design was slightly adapted for its context, incorporating captions in Polish as well as distinctively Polish costumes. The Wellcome example is, therefore, a closer match to the original printed images.
It is untypical to find a painting that conforms so closely to a graphic prototype as the Wellcome Dance of Death. While prints of various artistic themes were in wide circulation in 18th-century Europe, providing easily accessible design inspiration, many artists were selective in the motifs they chose to adopt. It is possible that the unknown artist of the Wellcome painting was asked by his patron to use a printed image such as Ridinger’s as a direct template; the print could thus have formed an important part of the commission. Due to the lack of available evidence about the provenance of this artwork, however, we can only speculate about whether it was intended for a religious context or a private collector. It may even have formed part of a wider collection of memento mori art and memorabilia belonging to a particular enthusiast. With the identity of its patron and the circumstances of its commission a compelling mystery, therefore, there is still much left to discover about the Wellcome Dance of Death.
Dr Aleksandra Koutny-Jones is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter (E firstname.lastname@example.org).