The dance of death. Oil painting.

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About this work


The Dance of death originates in mediaeval plays and folk rituals performed on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December), and in funeral sermons. In the most popular version, Death (in the form of a skeleton) dances in succession with people representing particular social ranks (Pope, emperor, king, lawyer, peasant, etc.) and takes away each in turn, demonstrating that nobody however exalted in this life, can escape death. Conversely, nobody, however humble in this life, is in the end worse off than the rich and mighty. The theme lent itself to long mural paintings in which the entire sequence is depicted: examples (now destroyed) were the walls of the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris, 1425, or the of the Predigerkirche in Basel, ca. 1440. It could also be painted in the bays within a cloister, where the monks and pilgrims would pass each scene in turn as they walked around the cloister (as in Old St Paul's Cathedral, London)

In 1485, when printed books were still a novelty, the Dance of Death was first published as a series of woodcuts (to be succeeded later by engravings), in which each individual scene occupied a separate page of a book. The vivid woodcuts of this subject by Hans Holbein (1538) were studied throughout Europe. As a result most people viewing the Dance of Death would be using media in which they could only see the episodes one at a time

In the seventeenth century, painters and print makers created versions of the Dance of Death which represented all the episodes in one painting or engraving, often together with other motifs such as skulls and clocks added to reinforce the message. In Germany, five such engravings are known from the 17th and 18th centuries, and many paintings with the same general composition are known from churches in Poland, Croatia, Germany, Slovakia and elsewhere. The paintings and prints have many variations from each other, which may eventually permit their origins to be known through a family tree of earlier versions and copies. Many of them were commissioned by the order of Observant Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) for the sacristies or waiting rooms of their churches. The present painting in the Wellcome Library is one these, and another, larger version is in the Church of Saint Bernardino of Siena in Kraków

Physical description

1 painting : oil on canvas ; canvas 72 x 55 cm

References note

Aleksandra Koutny, 'Dancing with death in Poland', Print quarterly, 2005, 22: 14-31
Aleksandra Koutny-Jones, 'A macabre mystery: the Wellcome Library's Dance of death', Wellcome History, 2012, 50: 14-16
Aleksandra Koutny-Jones, Visual cultures of death in Central Europe: contemplation and commemoration in early modern Poland-Lithuania, Leiden: Brill, 2015, p. 113

Exhibitions note

Exhibited in "The Story of British Comics So Far: Cor! By Gum! Zarjaz!" at The Lightbox, Woking, 5 August 2016 - 1 January 2017
Exhibited in "Medicine Man" at Wellcome Collection, 18 February - 7 October 2019


Wellcome Collection 45066i


Top left: 1. Der Pabst. Des Pabsts gewalt den Tod nicht halt [Pope. The might of the Pope does not constrain death.]
Top row, second from left: 2. Keyser. Das Haupt der Welt dem Tod heim fält. [Emperor. The head of the world defers to Death.]
Top row, second from right: 3. König. Das Haupt gekront der Tod nich schont. [King. The crowned head Death does not spare.]
Top row, right: 4. Cardinal. Den Cardinal ich auch hin hal. [Cardinal. The cardinal also I take away.]
Right, second from top: 5. Bischoff. Bader [Bänder], Bischoff, fuhr ich aufn freythoff [Friedhoff] [Bands, bishop, I lead them to the graveyard]
Right, second from bottom: 6. Herzog. Seyst Herr oder fürst dem Tod zletz wirst. [Duke. Whether you are lord or prince, to death you come in the end]
Bottom row, right: 7. Graff. In Graff und Knecht der Tod hat recht. [In dukes and servants death has control]
Bottom row, second from right: 8. Edelman Kein Edel Blut von Todt behut [No noble blood protects from Death]
Bottom row, second from left: 9. Burger Kein Mensch hie hat ein bleibend Statt [No man here has a stable position]
Bottom row, left: 10. Baur Der Baur auch muß unters Tods Fuß [The peasant/farmer also must [go] under Death's foot.]
Left, second from bottom: 11. Bettler. Kriegsman. Kriegsman, Bettler, gleich halten her [Beggar, warrior. Warrior, beggar, alike they halt here]
Left, second from top: 12. Narr. Kindt Narrn zugleich gehören in mein reich [Children and fools alike belong in my kingdom]
Upper central cartouche: Der Tod Christi zu nicht hat gemacht den Tod, und sleben wider bracht. [The death of Christ has reduced death to nothing, and brought [us] back to life]
Lower central cartouche: Den Todt und ewige höllische Pein hat veruhrsagt die Sünd allein. [Death and the eternal torture of hell are caused by sin alone]


Where to find it

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    On Exhibition
    Can't be requested


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