The Dance of Death, Clusone

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Dance of Death, Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone, Photo AES

This post goes along with my Post on the Triumph of Death and the Three Living and the Three Dead.  The Confraternity of Disciplini at Clusone were very keen that we should get the message about death.  So they provided us with three separate images of the nearness of death, all of them popular at the time.

There is a lot of writing on the Internet about the Dance of Death, and I am only sharing this post in tribute to a lovely example.  The Three Living and the Three Dead go back to the 13th Century, but the Dance of Death seems to take off in the 15th Century, after the Black Death.  This example is from 1485.

The phrase ‘Dance of Death’ today suggests the bizarre and the horrific.   These associations are encapsulated by the composer Saint-Saens who used the usual French version of the name,  Danse Macabre, for his 1874 tone poem.  He envisaged a skeletal death animating the corpses in a graveyard to dance to a frantic and sinister tune on the violin.  This is very Gothic, and an interesting example of the 19th Century association of virtuosity, especially on the violin, and the dark arts – the Paganini connection.  There are examples of fascination with mere horror in the older tradition, for example this lurid woodcut, which could illustrate Saint-Saens’ music, if only Michael Wolgemut had supplied his skeletal musician with a viol instead of a  – is it a shawm? .

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel

Although the prancing corpses are definitely dancing and dead, they don’t really have much to do with the Clusone Dance of Death and the 15th century family of moralising images to which it belongs.  This Dance of Death is usually stately and relatively benign, taking the form of a chain dance, where each human participant is accompanied by a skeleton.  The skeletons don’t appear predatory or malign nor the humans horrified or distressed.  There is no violence or confrontation, the humans are not snatched away, rather, courtesy prevails in the manner of a courtly dance.  I think this type of Dance of Death is really an image of human life; we should understand the skeletons as our own skeletons, the mortality which accompanies us and is inseparable from our earthly existence.  Human life is literally a promenade with mortality – we seem to be one with our, we adorn and enjoy them, but they set a limit to our earthly existence, through fragility, decay and inevitable death.  Our real life is elsewhere.  As long as we understand this, there is no reason why we should fear the dance.

The Clusone Dance of Death is particularly amicable.  On the left of the picture the hooded figure in white is one of the Confraternity, taking his place in the dance alongside prosperous citizens of different walks of life.  Behind him is a richly dressed woman, the only one I could spot in the scene.  In front of him the man in blue seems to have drawn a particularly friendly skeleton who turns towards him and inclines his head courteously, while delicately holding his first two fingers.  The hand position seems to be a deliberate part of the dance motif.  The skeleton partners do take the arm or hand of the mortals.   I can’t make out the lady’s hold, but in the case of both the Brother and his neighbour, the skeleton reaches across to place its right arm over the right arm of its partner, but not fully touching the arm and holding fingers not the whole hand – very genteel.  Where the mortal figures do not have a free right hand the hold differs.  The man in the red stocking has the same hold, but on his left hand.  The man in green leggings is lightly holding hands with his skeleton; the next couple have linked arms completely, and the skeleton is also using his spare hand to grasp his partner’s wrist in a particularly confiding manner.

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Dance of Death, Clusone, detail, Photo AES

There are no poor people in this Dance of Death – the point isn’t about Death the Leveller, but Death the Companion.  The costumes indicate a range of occupations, which clearly feature being a woman and a confraternal Brother.  Apart from that, I am not specialist enough to judge.  My guess is that the dancers include a soldier, a huntsman, a merchant, a courtier and a man with a teapot and terrible dress sense.

The philosophy of the 15th Century Dance of Death reminds me of the cadaver tombs which occur in the same period.  Alice Chaucer, died 1475 and styled Princess and Duchess at her death, has a magnificent example in Ewelme, which I must get out and photograph for you.  There are two tiers.  On top she lies in her pomp, underneath she lies a shrivelled corpse, but (I know this because I crawled) looking at her very own painting of the Annunciation on the ceiling of her death chamber.  In Italy the tradition goes back to the 13th Century.   In case anyone from Cambridge reads this, Hugh Ashton has a splendid cadaver tomb (1522) now in St John’s College Chapel.




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