Dance Of Death (Lat. chorea Machabce-orum; Fr. danse macabre, and danse des morts; Ger. Todtentanz), a mediaeval religious dance, long a favorite subject of painting and poetry, in which persons of all ranks and ages were represented as dancing together with the skeleton form of death, which led them to the grave. In the 14th century masked figures representing death appeared during carnival, with the privilege of taking by the hand and dancing with whomsoever they might meet. With the approbation of the clergy, a sort of masquerade was performed in the churches, in which the chief characters in society were supported, dramatic conversations being introduced between Death and the persons in the procession, each of whom in turn vanished from the scene, as a symbol of departure from life. This custom, as represented by art, appears for more than three centuries in a vast number of forms, most various in pathos, humor, and grotesqueness; in verse in nearly every European language; and in paintings on town halls, in market places, in the arcades of burying grounds, and on the walls of palaces, cloisters, and churches.
One of the most interesting poems on the subject is in Spanish, the Danga qeneral de los muertos (found entire in the appendix to Ticknor's " History of Spanish Literature "), which belongs to the 14th century, and in which Death summons to his mortal dance first the pope, then the cardinals, kings, bishops, and so on, down to day laborers. Each makes some remonstrance, but in vain, "for still the cry is, Haste! and haste to all." Poetical inscriptions often accompanied the paintings, which are first traced in the southwestern parts of Germany, in Switzerland, Alsace, and Swabia; the oldest was one which formerly existed in a convent at Klin-genthal, near Basel, but which has long been wholly destroyed, and of which nothing is known but the fact of its existence. An inscription on the wall says it was painted in 1274. Among the most celebrated dances of death are those of the cloister of the Dominicans at Basel, painted in 1480, to commemorate a visitation of the plague, and several times renewed, especially in 1568; those of the chapel of St. Mary's church at Ltibeck, in the castle and cemetery of Dresden, at Annaberg, Lucerne, Strasburg, and Rouen, in the church of the Innocents at Paris, in the church of La chaise Dieu in Auvergne, in the crypts of the church of St. Michel at Bordeaux, and in the cathedral of Amiens; in the church of St. Paul in London, to which John Lydgate added verses that were translated from the French; in the palace of St. Ildefonso in Spain; and the famous painting of the Trionfo delta morte in the campo santo of Pisa, by Andrea Orcagna, in the 14th century.
In all 39 of these dances are mentioned, the latest being that at Stau-bingen, painted in 1763. Many have been preserved in engravings, are found on missals and on the margins of numerous old books, and in the 16th century were reproduced in miniature as ornaments for the sheaths of swords and poniards. The fresco at Basel was destroyed by the falling of the walls in 1805, only fragments of it being preserved in the city library; but in the 16th century it suggested to Holbein his celebrated series entitled "The Dance of Death," which combines 53 distinct and most diverse scenes. Death here assumes various ironical costumes, while meeting with and overcoming persons in every condition of life. The older pictures are not divided into single scenes, but the skeleton appears leading after it a procession of all ranks and ages. All of the poems and paintings on this grim subject mingle sublimity and grotesqueness. The best works treating of it are those of Massmann, Literatur der Todtentanze (Leipsic, 1841), and Baseler Todtentanze (Stuttgart, 1847); Peignot, Recherches sur la danse des morts (Dijon and Paris, 1826); L'anglois, Essai historique, philosophique et pittoresque sur les danses des morts, with 54 engravings (2 vols., Rouen, 1852); and Douce, " The Dance of Death" (London, 1833).