Johann Elias Ridinger dance of Death

Johann Elias Ridinger dance of Death

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Copyright (text)
1998-2008 © Patrick Pollefeys


Johann Elias Ridinger drew this dance of death in the middle of the 18th century. The central drawing is framed by twelve smaller pictures that show Death with men from different social classes (clockwise : the pope, the emperor, the king, the cardinal, the bishop, the duke, the count, the noble man, the burgher, the peasant, the beggar and the soldier, the jester and the child). The four corners of the main picture are adorned with scenes from the Bible : below left, the original sin ; below right, the damned in hell ; top left, the crucifixion ; top right, the righteous in heaven. In a broad field with a little church and a cemetery, women from all social classes - from the empress to the crazy woman - dance together. The characters form a ring, which is very unusual. The dance of death is generally a " farandole ", a type of dance performed in a row.

The birth of the art of printing boosted the popularity of the dance of death as an artistic genre. But with this new medium, the motif of the dance must necessarily lose some of its importance. The usual format of a book does not allow an artist to represent a long row of dancers. So the " farandole " became a pas de deux, each character forming a couple with Death. This change led to a revolution in the original idea underlying the dance of death : the act of dying became an individual event that replaced the collective death symbolized by the farandole. Holbein the Youngest's well-known suites of woodcuts helped the genre of the dance of death to go through this decisive stage of its evolution.