Paris Dance of Death

Innocents' cloister

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Copyright (textes)
1996-2017 © Patrick Pollefeys

Historians believe this dance of death to be the ancestor of all others. Painted from August 1424 to 1425, the fresco decorated the southern wall of the Innocents' cloister in Paris, which was surrounded by the biggest cemetery in the city. In 1669, it was destroyed in order to enlarge the road. At that time, the dance of death was already seriously damaged and had sunk into oblivion. Louis XIV contemporaries despised this artistic genre, which came from a period of history they thought to be barbarian and without any sense of aesthetic. Fortunately, two manuscripts in the possession of the Paris National Library have passed on to us the text of this important dance of death. We also know its pictures from a book by Guyot Marchant, a printer who had published in 1485 a woodcut edition from the dance of death, from which a single copy remains nowadays, in the Library of Grenoble. We know almost for sure that the pictures in Marchant's edition are similar to those ones painted in the Innocents' cemetery, although they are not identical in every detail. In the manuscript, the columns that separate the characters stand for the stone arches of the cloister. Transferring the fresco into a book, a different type of medium, required an adaptation; it was not possible to show the whole dance on a single page, so it had to be divided into several pictures. This sometimes caused confusion. For example, it is hard to understand why the sergeant says "Je suis pris de ca et de la" (I am being attacked on all sides) when death actually stands on the next page. The manuscript also innovated in another way: the characters' clothes were modified to fit the 18th-century fashion.

The Paris dance of death begins with an introduction given by a "reciter". Then come four Death musicians and then the dance itself: the pope, the emperor, the cardinal, the king, the patriarch, the constable, the archbishop, the knight, the bishop, the squire, the abbot, the bailiff, the savant, the burgher, the canon, the merchant, the Carthusian, the sergeant, the monk, the usurer (with the poor), the doctor, the courtier, the lawyer, the minstrel, the priest, the peasant, the Franciscan, the child, the cleric, and the hermit. The dance ends with the King of death accompanying the reciter. It is worth noticing that no woman takes part in the dance and that clergymen alternate with laymen (savants, doctors and lawyers being considered members of the clergy in the fourteenth century). Death stands at the right side of each character, except in the case of the hermit; between the latter and the cleric is a second skeleton, who bows as if he were greeting someone.

The engravings of Paris dance of death can be admired by clicking on one of the links below. They come from Guyot Marchant's second edition of the Danse Macabre, published in 1486.

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Death is represented in various positions, sometimes naked, sometimes draped in a shroud, holding a scythe or a spear, a shovel or a piece of wood (to make a coffin? a cross?) Death usually takes the shape of an emaciated human body. Only the skeleton coupled with the Franciscan has features instead of a mere skull. The anonymous artist who painted Paris dance of death was as talented as imaginative.

The verses are credited to Jean Gerson - a true pessimist. According to Gerson's philosophy, men are conceited creatures with a black and wicked heart. His verses have a cynical tone that cannot be overheard. Death tells the patriarch: "You will never be pope in Rome". He makes fun of the abbot ("The fattest man is the first to rot") as of the doctor, who is unable to heal himself. The author finds fault with everyone, except maybe for the child, the Carthusian and the Franciscan.