Dance of Death by Bernt Notke

Dance of Death by Bernt Notke (1463-66)

Often when I research a painting for my Daily Art Display I am amazed by the complexity of the history of the painting or the biography of the artist and I find myself being sucked deeper and deeper into the story behind the work of art.  The deeper I go the more I realize how difficult it will be to précis what I have found so that the blog does not become too boring and burdensome.  My featured work of art today is an example of this complexity but, to be honest, the more complex a painting becomes the more interested I become and the more I need to dig deeper into the story.  I hope that the story behind My Daily Art Display today does not cross the line which separates intrigue and tedium.

My featured artist today is Bernt Notke.  He was born around 1435 in Lassan, the German town near to the Baltic Sea coast, close to the border with Poland.  He was a painter, sculptor and woodcarver and was considered to be one of the most important exponents of his work in the whole of Northern Europe during his lifetime.  Today I am looking at his enormous tempera on linen Dance of Death frieze which he completed in 1466 and part of which can be seen in Tallinn at the St Nicholas Church Art Museum of Estonia.

Dance of Death paintings were quite common in the late Medieval times up to the beginning of the 16th century and they were painted to remind people that no matter how rich or poor they were, or no matter how powerful they were, death would take them all.  In those days,  epidemics, such as the Black Death, were both recurrent and numerous and they would kill millions of people.  The Hundred Years War between 1337 and 1453 alone claimed three million lives.  The devastation caused by such events enabled people to understand only too well the meaning of these paintings.  They were artistic expressions of the everyday fears of people with the subject of death.  The character “Death” in these works was viewed not as a destroyer but as a messenger of God summoning his people to the world beyond the grave.

The title Dance of Death varied slightly from country to country.  For example, it was known as Danse Macabre in France, Danza de la Muerte in Spain and Totentanz in German but all had the same meaning.  We have come across this type of thing before when we have looked at Vanitas paintings.  Vanitas being the Latin word for emptiness and corresponds in this case more to the word “meaningless” – the meaningless of earthly life.  Vanitas works were to be a stark reminder to us of the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Such paintings would usually incorporate objects which would in some way remind us of death such as a skull or skeleton, or an almost burnt-out candle, watches or hour glasses which symbolized time passing and in still life vanitas paintings rotting food could also be used as a symbol of decay.

Normally the Dance of Death paintings or frescoes were painted on the walls of cloisters or on walls within some churches.  In general we would see Death depicted as an emaciated corpse or skeleton paired with a person from a particular social class as they carry out their dance of death.  Below each pair there would be a verse, the first part of which would be spoken by Death addressing his victim often in cynical and sarcastic terms.  This is then followed by the victims reply as he or she begs for their life.

The join between two fragments of the painting

In the featured work today we see just the surviving part of Notke’s Dance of Death.  His original work was 30 metres in length but this only remaining fragment is only 7.5 metres in length.  The fragment  can be viewed today at the church museum in Tallinn and actually comprises of two pieces, one 6.4 metres long and a much smaller piece approximately 1.15metres long which incorporates the king, and which were joined together in 1843.  However if you look carefully at the join you can see that the background doesn’t run smoothly from one side to another nor does the hand of the devil attach itself to any part of the body of the king, so is there something missing or is it a case that the joining of the two pieces was not carried out correctly?   Further restoration work on this painting was carried out in Moscow in 1962.

Preacher, Musician and Pope

In the painting, we see on the far left the preacher in his pulpit reprimanding his congregation.  Next to the pulpit we see “death” seated playing what looks like bagpipes and I must say in this case “death” looks a little like ET !    Why the bagpipes?   The thought behind this is that bagpipes are known to be able to “wake the dead”.   The inclusion of this musician does add to the sense of macabre and of course he is the musician who will play as the characters to the right of him perform the Dance of Death.    Moving to the right we see another figure of “death” balancing a coffin on his shoulder with his right hand,  whilst at the same time his left hand grasps the clothing of the pope as he begins to lead him in the dance.   To the right of the pope we observe  another figure of “death”.  His right hand is grasping the left wrist of the pope whilst his left hand, which is behind him, holds the Emperor’s wrist.  This interconnection between earthly figures and the figures of “death” continues along the line as they start to dance.  In the surviving part of the painting we have five people facing out at us.  They are the pope, the empress, the emperor, the cardinal and the king and between each we see “death” in the form of a skeleton.

Empress and Cardinal with verses

As I stated earlier, in Dance of Death works a two part verse is often written below each character.  The first part of the eight-line verse is made up of words from the living person begging for his or her life and the second part is the eight-line reply from Death, the last line of which being and introduction to the next mortal along the chain.  An example of this is the verse below the Empress which when translated is:

I know, Death means me!
I was never terrified so greatly!
I thought he was not in his right mind,
after all, I am young and also an empress.
I thought I had a lot of power,
I had not thought of him
or that anybody could do something against me.
Oh, let me live on, this I implore you!

And Death replies:

Empress, highly presumptuous,
methinks you have forgotten me.
Fall in! It is now time.
You thought I should let you off?
No way! And were you ever so much,
You must participate in this play,
And you others, everybody —
Hold on! Follow me, Mr Cardinal!

The Cardinal now says his piece:

Have mercy on me, Lord, [when it] shall happen.
I can in no way escape it.
[When] I look in front or behind me,
I feel Death by me at all times.
What will the high rank avail me
[the rank] that I had? I must leave it
and become more unworthy at once
than an unclean, stinking dog.

And Death replies:

You were in status equal to
an apostle of God on earth,
in order to strengthen the Christian belief
with words and other good works.
But you have, with great haughtiness,
been riding your high horse.
Therefore you most mourn so much more now!
Now step here in front you too, Mr King!

And so it goes on along the line of mortals, all wanting to plead their case only to be refused by the inflexibility of Death.

On display in the St Nicholas’s Church art Museum in Tallinn

I would love to go and see this painting and sad to say I was in Tallinn about six years ago but knew nothing about this great work of art.  If you ever go to Tallinn make sure you add this painting to your “must