Danse Macabre: Equality in Death in Medieval Istrian Frescoes, by Jelena Dunato


The Danse Macabre—the Dance of Death—is an iconographic theme that first appears in fifteenth-century European art. It shows skeletons or cadavers leading a procession of the living from all walks of life towards the grave.

From the modern perspective, this may seem gruesome, even morbid. Most images of (Western) death are banned in the mainstream media—we never see the dead, unless they are casualties from faraway wars we cannot locate on a map. When our loved ones die, our loss is sanitized and wrapped in a tasteful package. We don’t keep our dead at home, there are no wakes, nor do we take last photographs with them as our nineteenth-century ancestors did. We have removed the physical presence of death from our lives, and we wonder why anyone would celebrate death in such a strange way.

To understand the Danse Macabre and its origins, one must understand the relation of medieval people to death and—inseparable from it—their Christian beliefs. To medieval men and women, death was not the mere end of life, but something far more significant: the introduction to a higher stage of being that led to divine judgement and then to Heaven (hopefully) or Hell (to be avoided, obviously). Considering the harsh conditions of life, death was also seen as the release from suffering, sickness, and toil, the liberation from the shackles of the corrupt mortal flesh, and the introduction to the kingdom of spirit. In that sense, the Danse Macabre depicts a ritual of transition from life to death.

Death is a popular theme in Christian art, but before the fourteenth century, the artists mostly depicted the deaths of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints. Only from the fourteenth century onwards did the death of the common people become an acceptable subject. This change was probably influenced by the horrors of the Black Death, so rampant across Europe that it became a cult in itself.

It is also worth mentioning that most medieval people couldn’t read, nor did they have any access to books. Therefore, all important messages for the masses were conveyed in pictures. This is why we have the amazing, elaborate Gothic portals and fresco cycles. The images we see as art (and often, without iconographic knowledge, can’t understand), the medieval people saw as stories. They were able to “read” the walls.

The Danse Macabre did not suddenly materialize out of thin air as a new subject. It is a combination of several earlier literary and visual sources. Despite what may appear to be slow dissemination in today’s terms, new ideas did spread across medieval Europe. One of the popular sources was the Biblia pauperum (Paupers’ Bible), a type of picture Bible that showed typological correspondences between the Old and New Testaments, with words written on scrolls coming out of the characters’ mouths, somewhat similar to the modern comic strips. There were also individual woodcuts (relatively cheap to make in bulk, and easy to transport) showing popular subjects and—the most luxurious of all—illuminated manuscripts.

The fourteenth century is also the time when we first encounter the personification of death. The image of the skeletal reaper or archer appears, introducing Death not as a metaphysical transition into afterlife, but as an agent of destruction.

In the legend of “The Three Living and the Three Dead,” three young knights/noblemen go hunting and come upon three open graves. The three rotting cadavers sitting in them tell the knights, “What we were, you are; what we are, you will be.” This image of the active, personified death was created as a warning against vanity, wealth, and temptations of the physical world. No matter who you are or what you have, death will come to all in the end.

From such a juxtaposition of the living and the dead, there is a short step to the idea of the Danse Macabre, the imaginative combination of sacred and profane aspects of medieval life, merging the joy and abandon of the dance with the imminent, horrifying demise. Its earliest representation, now lost, appeared in Paris c. 1424 and quickly spread to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and other parts of Europe. It is difficult to say how frequent it was, as many Gothic churches were refurbished during the Counter-Reformation period, stripped of their old decoration and repainted and redecorated according to the new iconographic ideals.

photograph by Renco Kosinožić, used with permission of the Tourist Board of Central Istria

It is therefore a miracle that two rather well-preserved representations of the Danse Macabre can still be found on the walls of two little churches in Istria—one in the village of Beram (now in Croatia) and the other in Hrastovlje (Slovenia).

The frescoes in the Gothic church of Sv. Marija na Škrilinah in Beram were painted by the master Vincent of Kastav (Vincentius de Kastua) and his workshop in 1474—which is recorded in the inscription above the side door of the church. Sv. Marija is a small graveyard church with no aisles. Its interior is decorated by forty-six scenes depicting the lives of Mary and Jesus. The Danse Macabre is situated on the western wall, above the main entrance. This is an interesting choice, because this spot is usually reserved for the Last Judgement—to remind the people leaving the church that everything they do will be judged one day. The Danse Macabre fulfils the same function, but in a more vivid and grisly way.

The only record we have of Vincent of Kastav is the inscription on the wall. Looking at the frescoes, however, we can see that he and the two other painters from his workshop whose distinctive styles we can recognize in the frescoes were competent craftsmen. Not very elegant or subtle, but bold and imaginative with their colorful, voluminous, stylized figures. They were not progressive—in the age when the Italian Renaissance was already in full bloom, they were still firmly rooted in the medieval tradition. On the other hand, this is what makes them so valuable: they were local, plebeian artists who inherited the wealth of medieval folklore, rituals, superstitions, and social rules.

The Danse Macabre procession in Beram features ten living characters—not individual persons, but representations of their class, reminding the viewer of the ubiquity of death despite social inequality. Each living character is led by a skeleton towards the King of Death on the far right, who is crowned with a feather crown and playing the bagpipes (which are sometimes associated with the Devil).

The skeletons dance and frolic. They hold the emblems of death—the scythe and the bow—and musical instruments such as trumpets and lutes. Despite the fact that the skeletons demonstrate the artist’s complete ignorance of the human anatomy, they still manage to convey a sense of gruesome joy and vigorous movement. In contrast to that, the living are serious and sad, with bowed heads and downturned mouths. They are arranged according to the social hierarchy: from right to left, the first character approaching the King of Death is the pope, followed by a cardinal, a bishop, a king, a queen, an innkeeper, a child, a beggar, a soldier, and a merchant. Like in many other depictions of the Danse Macabre, the rich try to bribe Death—the pope is offering a bag of money, the queen a full bowl of it—all in vain. Even the innkeeper is carrying a little barrel—an emblem that can also be interpreted as a gift.

It is interesting to notice that the hierarchy of the figures representing the lower classes is somewhat mixed up. The child comes before the beggar, who comes before the soldier and the merchant. It seems almost as if the artist, once he got the higher classes sorted out, wasn’t too interested in the further social stratification. He did, however, take care to faithfully document the clothes and accessories of his contemporaries. It is important to point out that a representation of the most numerous social class of the time—the peasants—is missing from this image.

The frescoes in the Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje were painted a few years later, in 1490, by the master Ivan of Kastav (Johannes de Kastua). He obviously shared the same place of origin (the Croatian town of Kastav) with master Vincent, but we do not know if they were related.

Despite the ideas and the visual language they share, the Danse Macabre in Hrastovlje differs from the one in Beram. It is just as colorful, local, and vivid, but the procession is more dignified and more firmly structured. The King of Death is no longer a mocking feathered skeleton with bagpipes but a solemn ruler, sitting on a throne, holding open the grave into which the first skeleton leads the procession.

The procession consists of eleven representations of the living: the pope, a king, a queen, a cardinal, a bishop, a monk, a physician, a merchant, a nobleman, a beggar, and a child stepping out of a cradle. The hierarchical order is much clearer here than in Beram and, again, there are no peasants. In fact, the only representative of the lower classes is the beggar. So if we shift our focus from the individual characters and look at the image as a whole, its message suddenly becomes clear.

The Danse Macabre in Hrastovlje, just like the one in Beram, is not here as a memento mori for the local peasants—they don’t need to be reminded of their own mortality. It is here to criticize the ruling classes who try to buy more time, who try to bribe death, who flaunt their worldly riches at the death’s door. It criticizes the vanity and the greed of the Church (four out of eleven characters are men of the Church). It goes beyond reminding the viewer that we will all die one day; it emphasizes that members of the ruling classes will die, too, that their position in the mortal world won’t save them, and that death will mock their attempts and then take them. As such, the Danse Macabre is not a representation of the ubiquity of death. It is an image—vivid, colorful, folkloric – painted on the walls of two small village churches by local artists offering consolation, mocking the powers that be, and righting social injustice.

It is worth remembering that medieval people knew how to read the walls. These messages are not subtle: they are vivid, colorful, and clear.

Iconographically and stylistically, the two Istrian Dance Macabres combine several European traditions of the period. They are influenced by painters from Italy and Northern and Central Europe, but in combining many different influences, the masters Vincent and Ivan of Kastav succeeded in creating a unique visual language and conveying a consistent, plain message, suitable for their public.

Jelena Dunato is an art historian, curator, speculative fiction writer and lover of all things ancient. Her stories have been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Future SF, The Dark and elsewhere. Jelena lives on an island in the Adriatic with her husband, daughter, and cat. You can find her at jelenadunato.com and on Twitter @jelenawrites.

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