Dance of Death

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Copyright (textes)
1996-2018 © Patrick Pollefeys

Lübeck's dance of death was probably ordered after a pest epidemic had swept through the city in the middle of the 14th century. The artist Bernt Notke painted it in 1463 on canvas (unlike most dances of death, it was not drawn directly on the wall). This work of art was exhibited in St Mary's Church. In 1701 it was replaced by a canvas, very close to the original, by Anton Wortmann. Unfortunately, Lübeck's dance of death was destroyed during a bombing in 1942. At least we still have excellent black and white photographs that can give us an idea of what it looked like. Bernt Notke painted another dance of death in Tallinn, Estonia. This allows us to infer that Wortmann's reproduction was faithful to the original, since it has a lot in common with the painting in Estonia (see Tallinn's Dance of Death).

Throughout the years many artists copied Lübeck's dance of death. C. J. Milde, the painter who restored it in the middle of the 19th century, also made a reproduction. Click here to see the pictures.

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Lübeck's dance of death is often considered as the oldest in Germany; a mistake, since the one painted on a wall of the Wengen's Cloister in Ulm was made about 20 years before. But Lübeck's dance of death was by far the most popular and beautiful in the country. It had 24 figures, which were led into the dance by emaciated corpses draped in a shroud. In the background we could see a bucolic landscape and, far away, Lübeck city and its harbour. All details were minutely painted.

fresco's detailAs we see it on the photographs, Lübeck's dance of death begins with a corpse who wears a hat and plays the flute. Another corpse, carrying a coffin, plucks at the pope's robe and leads him into the dance. Then come the emperor, the empress, the cardinal, the king, the bishop, the duke (destroyed in 1799), the abbott, the squire, the Carthusian, the mayor, the canon, the nobleman, the doctor, the usurer, the chaplain, the state official, the sacristan, the merchant, the hermit, the peasant, the young man, the young girl and the child in his craddle. Close to the baby, a dead one stands with a scythe in his hands (although it is rather hard to see on the photo). Fourteen laymen and 10 clergymen take part in this dance of death. As always, we can easily identify them. We know the pope by his tiara, the bishop by his mitre and his staff, the nobleman by his falcon, the doctor by his flask full of urine, etc. The usurer holds his purse tightly, but he is not shown in company of a poor man, as in Paris' dance of death. The living ones do not really follow the procession; they stand straight and face the spectators. Each skeleton utters four verses, saying men must follow him, and each living one answers. The original text, written in Lower-German, was translated into modern German during the restoration in 1701. Fortunately Jakob Melle, who was the pastor of St Mary's Church at that time, transcribed what had remained of the original text, so we still have a part of it. We also possess the whole translation into modern German.

stained-glass detailLübeck's dance of death had been a jewel of the city. To replace it in some way, the artist Alfred Malhau created in 1955-1956 two stained-glass windows that are still to be admired in St Mary's Church, in the transept facing north. The first window shows a corpse playing the flute. He is followed by the pope, the emperor, the empress, the king, the mayor, the merchant, the fonctionnaire, the nobleman and the squire. The other window shows a dead one carrying a coffin, followed by the doctor, the usurer, the Carthusian, the hermit, the peasant, the sacristan, the young man, the young girl, and finally the child in his craddle. In the lower part of each window, the artist has represented the city of Lübeck burning. Some of the characters we once found in Lübeck's dance of death (the cardinal, the bishop, the duke, the abbott, the chaplain and the canon) are missing in the stained-glass version, which shows only 18 of them. However, this more recent work of art presents two very moving scenes. In the first one, a dismayed corpse covers up his face with his hands while another dead removes the baby from his craddle. In the other one, the young man holds back a corpse who wants to take the young girl away. Click here to admire both stained-glasses (a big but remarkable file).

Those interested in Lübeck's dance of death may want to visit Martin Hagstrøm's website. Click here for the English translation.