The Danse Macabre… Images of Death from the 18th to 20th Centuries

No matter how important or lowly we are on this earth, we will all dance the Dance of Death. This was the message behind the depictions of death in its many forms that rose to popularity in medieval times. Death was a very close companion of the poor, as it still is today, so they enjoyed being reminded that the frolicking upper classes were also going to die, and sometimes as a direct result of said frolicking. Gambling and gluttony both led to death in painful and violent ways. Suicide was also depicted as doing Death’s job for him, letting him relax while you took care of it. The Danse Macabre genre has remained popular over the centuries, and the images below were taken from rare manuscripts from the 18th to 20th centuries found in the Cornell University Library. We clearly still enjoy death’s universal reach today, but it’s strange to think that those with power and money are looking for a way out of it…

 

 

F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen. Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.16. An unusual depiction of suicide, with death catching the man as he fires a pistol at his temple.
F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen. Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.16.
An unusual depiction of suicide, with death catching the man as he fires a pistol at his temple.
F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen. Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.54.
F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen. Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.54.
F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen. Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.94. A scene inspired by one of the seven deadly sins, gluttony: death forces drink down a man’s throat.
F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen. Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.94.
A scene inspired by one of the seven deadly sins, gluttony: death forces drink down a man’s throat.
F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen. Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.1. This scene in which death pulls an acrobat from a tightrope, while a shocked crowd looks on, displays features of the carnavalesque spirit.
F.R. Schellenberg. Freund heins Erscheinungen. Winterthur : Heinrich Steiner und Comp., 1785. Page 0.1.
This scene in which death pulls an acrobat from a tightrope, while a shocked crowd looks on, displays features of the carnavalesque spirit.
Sal. van Rusting. Todten-Tanz. Neurnberg : Peter Conrad Monath, 1736. Page 0, Plate frontispiece. The king is dead; Long live the king
Sal. van Rusting. Todten-Tanz. Neurnberg : Peter Conrad Monath, 1736. Page 0, Plate frontispiece.
The king is dead; Long live the king
Sal. van Rusting. Todten-Tanz. Neurnberg : Peter Conrad Monath, 1736. Page 0.28, Plate 2. A biblical setting: as death sounds the trumpet, torrential rains fall about Noah’s ark; people climb vainly to higher ground.
Sal. van Rusting. Todten-Tanz. Neurnberg : Peter Conrad Monath, 1736. Page 0.28, Plate 2.
A biblical setting: as death sounds the trumpet, torrential rains fall about Noah’s ark; people climb vainly to higher ground.
Sal. van Rusting. Todten-Tanz. Neurnberg : Peter Conrad Monath, 1736. Page 0.352, Plate 28. Death follows behind the tightrope walker, mimicking him with a group observing. Again, a carnavalesque danse macabre image.
Sal. van Rusting. Todten-Tanz. Neurnberg : Peter Conrad Monath, 1736. Page 0.352, Plate 28.
Death follows behind the tightrope walker, mimicking him with a group observing. Again, a carnavalesque danse macabre image.
Sal. van Rusting. Todten-Tanz. Neurnberg : Peter Conrad Monath, 1736. Page 0.366, Plate 30. Death holding hourglass, beckoning to the poet, a man who has the folly to believe in his books....
Sal. van Rusting. Todten-Tanz. Neurnberg : Peter Conrad Monath, 1736. Page 0.366, Plate 30.
Death holding hourglass, beckoning to the poet, a man who has the folly to believe in his books….
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.1, Plate frontispiece. Handcolored. Rowlandson’s crowned skeleton sits atop the globe with his equipment at his feet: drugs, compounds, gun powder, opium, arsenic, mercury.
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.1, Plate frontispiece.
Handcolored. Rowlandson’s crowned skeleton sits atop the globe with his equipment at his feet: drugs, compounds, gun powder, opium, arsenic, mercury.
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.119. Handcolored; London. Pub. Nov.1-1814, at R. Ackermann’s, 101 Strand. death dancing with mask of horned devil in hand; guests fallen to floor in horror
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.119.
Handcolored; London. Pub. Nov.1-1814, at R. Ackermann’s, 101 Strand. death dancing with mask of horned devil in hand; guests fallen to floor in horror
the Vision of Skulls; As it appears, though dead so long; Each skull is found to have a tongue. Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.1217. London. Pub. Nov.1-1814, at R. Ackermann’s, 101 Strand; handcolored. Rowlandson’s satire thrives on ironies such as here, where death plays tour guide to gullible fools in the catacombs.
the Vision of Skulls; As it appears, though dead so long; Each skull is found to have a tongue.
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.1217.
London. Pub. Nov.1-1814, at R. Ackermann’s, 101 Strand; handcolored. Rowlandson’s satire thrives on ironies such as here, where death plays tour guide to gullible fools in the catacombs.
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.1253. Handcolored. Death adds vitriol and aqua forte to drink barrell. A powerful image only matched in literature some 60 years later with Zola’s L’assommoir.
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.1253.
Handcolored. Death adds vitriol and aqua forte to drink barrell. A powerful image only matched in literature some 60 years later with Zola’s L’assommoir.
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.1258. Handcolored. Death pulls the ante towards himself, amid outraged gamblers
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.1258.
Handcolored. Death pulls the ante towards himself, amid outraged gamblers
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.21. Handcolored. Death can relax: the suicide victim (another is already floating in the water) does his work for him. This plate provides an early depiction of the favored romantic theme of suicide.
Thomas Rowlandson. The English Dance of Death. London : R. Ackermann, 1815. Page 0.21.
Handcolored. Death can relax: the suicide victim (another is already floating in the water) does his work for him. This plate provides an early depiction of the favored romantic theme of suicide.
Claude Paradin, chanoine de Beaujeu. Devises Heroïques. Lyon : Ian de Tournes et Guil Gazeau, 1557. Page 255.
Claude Paradin, chanoine de Beaujeu. Devises Heroïques. Lyon : Ian de Tournes et Guil Gazeau, 1557. Page 255.
unknown. [Illuminated Manuscript]. Basileæ : n.p., 0. Hand-drawn ink illustration. Original drawing from a witchcraft collection manuscript
unknown. [Illuminated Manuscript]. Basileæ : n.p., 0.
Hand-drawn ink illustration. Original drawing from a witchcraft collection manuscript
Sabastien Brant. Stultifera Navis. n.c. : n.p., 1497, Plate 94.
Sabastien Brant. Stultifera Navis. n.c. : n.p., 1497, Plate 94.
Alfred Rethel. Auch ein Todtentanz. n.c. : n.p., 1849, Plate 3.
Alfred Rethel. Auch ein Todtentanz. n.c. : n.p., 1849, Plate 3.
Alfred Rethel. Auch ein Todtentanz. n.c. : n.p., 1849, Plate 5.
Alfred Rethel. Auch ein Todtentanz. n.c. : n.p., 1849, Plate 5.
Alfred Rethel. Auch ein Todtentanz. n.c. : n.p., 1849, Plate 6.
Alfred Rethel. Auch ein Todtentanz. n.c. : n.p., 1849, Plate 6.
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 155. Horned skeleton striding, looking back at smaller skeleton pulling it’s tail
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 155.
Horned skeleton striding, looking back at smaller skeleton pulling it’s tail
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 178. Death with skull and crossbones held behind its back, running through crowd
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 178.
Death with skull and crossbones held behind its back, running through crowd
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 178. Skeleton couple wearing traditional Mexican dress
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 178.
Skeleton couple wearing traditional Mexican dress
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 179. Skeleton portrait of Japanese lady with fan
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 179.
Skeleton portrait of Japanese lady with fan
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 179. Skeleton portrait of dignified, European gentleman
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 179.
Skeleton portrait of dignified, European gentleman
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 179. Skeleton portrait of Ecclesiastical figure
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 179.
Skeleton portrait of Ecclesiastical figure
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 179. Skeleton portrait of Spanish gentleman
Jose Guadalupe Posada. Monografia; las Obras de Jose Guadalupe Posada. n.c. : n.p., 1930. Page 179.
Skeleton portrait of Spanish gentleman
Gabriel Peignot. Recherces Historiques et Littéraires sur les Danses des Morts. n.c. : n.p., 1826, Plate faceplate. Couturier, del.; Lith. de F. Noël. death in robe with scythe raised high, hovering over worldly globe
Gabriel Peignot. Recherces Historiques et Littéraires sur les Danses des Morts. n.c. : n.p., 1826, Plate faceplate.
Couturier, del.; Lith. de F. Noël. death in robe with scythe raised high, hovering over worldly globe
C. Merkel. Bilder des Todes ober Todtentanz für alle Stände. n.c. : n.p., 1850, Plate 2. In der Luft koch’ ich Verderben Und was athmet -- es muß sterben. Black Death. I the air I boil mischief and all that breathes -- must die.
C. Merkel. Bilder des Todes ober Todtentanz für alle Stände. n.c. : n.p., 1850, Plate 2.
In der Luft koch’ ich Verderben Und was athmet — es muß sterben. Black Death. I the air I boil mischief and all that breathes — must die.
C. Merkel. Bilder des Todes ober Todtentanz für alle Stände. n.c. : n.p., 1850, Plate 7. Die Jugend so feurig, die Wange so roth, So selig die Liebe -- so gräßlich der Tod. Virgin. The youth so fervent, the cheek so red, the love so blessed -- the death so dreadful.
C. Merkel. Bilder des Todes ober Todtentanz für alle Stände. n.c. : n.p., 1850, Plate 7.
Die Jugend so feurig, die Wange so roth, So selig die Liebe — so gräßlich der Tod. Virgin. The youth so fervent, the cheek so red, the love so blessed — the death so dreadful.
C. Merkel. Bilder des Todes ober Todtentanz für alle Stände. n.c. : n.p., 1850, Plate 14. Wollt ihr mit blut’ger hand an Recht und Ordnung rühren, So soll mein Banner Euch zum Bruderkampfe führen.. death speaking to armed crowd, incensing it into a mob
C. Merkel. Bilder des Todes ober Todtentanz für alle Stände. n.c. : n.p., 1850, Plate 14.
Wollt ihr mit blut’ger hand an Recht und Ordnung rühren, So soll mein Banner Euch zum Bruderkampfe führen.. death speaking to armed crowd, incensing it into a mob
C. Merkel. Bilder des Todes ober Todtentanz für alle Stände. n.c. : n.p., 1850, Plate 16. Mit meinem Reich hat’s keine NothWenn die Verzweiflung treibt zum Tod. Suicide. My empire faces no hardship when exasperation leads to death.
C. Merkel. Bilder des Todes ober Todtentanz für alle Stände. n.c. : n.p., 1850, Plate 16.
Mit meinem Reich hat’s keine NothWenn die Verzweiflung treibt zum Tod. Suicide. My empire faces no hardship when exasperation leads to death.
E.-H. Langlois. Essai Historique, Philosophique et Pittoresque sur les Danses des Morts. n.c. : n.p., 1852, Plate Frontispiece. E.H.L.. The frontispiece of this pioneering study of the danse macabre theme shows death attended by demons, leading a placid woman into grave. The pose of both reminds one in fact of the chevalier at the ball, with his waltzing partner.
E.-H. Langlois. Essai Historique, Philosophique et Pittoresque sur les Danses des Morts. n.c. : n.p., 1852, Plate Frontispiece.
E.H.L.. The frontispiece of this pioneering study of the danse macabre theme shows death attended by demons, leading a placid woman into grave. The pose of both reminds one in fact of the chevalier at the ball, with his waltzing partner.
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Meghan

Meghan

Meghan MacRae grew up in Vancouver, Canada, but spent many years living in the remote woods. Living in the shadow of grizzly bears, cougars and the other predators of the wilderness taught her about the dark side of nature, and taught her to accept her place in nature's order as their prey. She is co-founder of CVLT Nation webzine and clothing alongside her husband Sean.

9 Comments

  1. November 25, 2015 at 7:02 am — Reply

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    Em Yates

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