And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 16. juni 2014

Dance macabre

These days I have busy mowing hay in my homeplace, deep in the Western Norwegian countryside. This kind of work always reminds me of Andrew Marvell's poems of Damon the reaper, and naturally further depictions and formulations of death follow suit in the chain of association and rememberance. I while back I posted a brief introductory piece on the vanitas motif and its fourteenth-century roots. In this blogpost, I aim to look at another cultural trope that burgeoned from the same circumstances, with two modern renditions.

Death has always featured very prominently in Christian culture, and perhaps most poignantly in the medieval centuries. This is of course natural, given the omnipresence and inevitability of death, which naturally were both more emphasised in ages of high mortality rates due to epidemics, disastrous wars and sundry purges done out of a religious sense of duty or as a means to keep a princedom stable. However, the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century left an unprecedented imprint on the collective cultural memory of medieval man, and this resulted in new cultural expressions and formulations that sought to prepare mankind for death and the subsequent final reckoning, or to comfort men in the great democracy of death: the knowledge that no man or woman on earth could escape it, be it a pope, a queen, a milkmaid or a beggar. Death as the great leveller came to the forefront of the cultural mind, and entered art and literature in new or enhanced cultural tropes. This was the great cult of mortality. It differed in certain respects from the cult of the dead that had permeated much of medieval religious life up to this point, and which continued as a cultural current for many centuries.

While the cult of the dead was greatly concerned with the soul's afterlife and that the proper funerary rites were observed and that the liturgy of the dead was performed, the cult of mortality can be said to have had a more immediate emphasis. While the cult of the dead looked to helping the departed through Purgatory, the cult of mortality sought to educate people so that they would pass through Purgatory well prepared. It is tempting to suggest that the Black Death had taught people that sometimes one could die and there would be no one left to pray for your soul.  

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel

Courtesy of Wikimedia

Of course, the novelty of the cult of mortality should not be exaggerated. The cult of the dead, with funerary rites, liturgies for the departed and obsequies continued largely in the same way as before, while the cult of mortality picked up on ideas already prevalent in the Christian mindscape. For instance, the legend of the three living and the three dead can be found in several sources antedating the Black Death. Likewise, the very culture of monasticism with its thousand-year long history at the eve of the plague, and the exertions of the mendicant friars also sought to turn people on to the narrow path well in advance of death. The novelty, however, of the cult of mortality as it came into being in the 14th century, was death's more visible position, and the emphasis on death as the leveller of society.

Perhaps the best example of this new emphasis, is the cultural trope known as the dance macabre, the dance of the dead, in which people from all walks of life are whirled away by death, which can be found in paintings, woodcuts, frescoes and sundry literary texts. The perhaps most striking aspect of this trope is the prominence of high-born men and women, stressing the idea that you can not escape death, no matter your position in society, and that in the grave - when stripped of all worldly pomp - the pope and the prostitute are the same. This is for instance the big message of the musicians of death found in a now-vanished fresco of the Cloister of the Innocents in Paris, 1424-25 and later rendered in a woodcut published by Guyot Marchant in Grenoble in 1485. (These fellows also features in the Corto Maltese story The rose of alchemy, as a part of Corto's exposure to Swiss history and culture, and the five of them dance to Camille Saint-Saëns' famous piece.)

Les morts musiciens
Woodcut published by Guyot Marchant, 1485
Courtesy of this website

Another eminent illustration of this message can be found in Hans Holbein the younger's series of woodcuts from 1526. Here, people from all strata of society meet their ends in manners suitable to their positions, harkening back to the thirteenth-century idea of vado mori, I go to die in the way I lived, which became more widespread in the wake of the Black Death.

The pope and death
Courtesy of this website

The fool dancing to the pipe of death
Courtesy of this website

The dance macabre has resonated strongly throughout later centuries as well, and below you can find two charming examples of how the trope has been rendered in modern times. The first, and perhaps best known, is Camille Saint-Saëns' symphonic poem Dance macabre from 1874, while the second is a short Silly Symphonies cartoon from 1929. 

2 kommentarer:

  1. I wouldn't say there was a cult of the dead in Christianity, only a cult of their memory.
    I can't agree with the notion "cult of mortality" when you mean the ars moriendi, rules of dying in a civilized way as a Christian.
    The idea of vado mori is earlier than you say.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      There are a few things here that need to be clarified:

      First of all, I find that a "cult of memory" misrepresents the medieval - and indeed the Christian - worldview. The dead are not lost, but in transition, and in the Middle Ages, the liturgical prayers and votive offerings for the dead served to aid them through Purgatory. The objective was therefore not their memory itself, but by that memory to aid them onwards in the afterlife. Thus I find it more precise to speak of a cult of the dead, which consists of obsequies, funerary rites, votive masses and liturgical prayer in perpetuum.

      When speaking of a cult of mortality, I admit this might be unduly imprecise. However, this term encompasses more than merely the ars moriendi, but that specific set of expressions of mortality that came in the wake of the Black Death. Since the goal was to emphasise mortality of the flesh for educational purposes, I feel comfortable referring to this cultural current as a cult of mortality, but this is of course open to discussion.

      As for Vado Mori, you are correct and I will change that in the text.