The dance of death. Oil painting (without frame, 2016).
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.