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6 / Death

Death leading a doctor holding a vial of urine. La Danse Macabre.
Death leading a doctor holding a vial of urine. La Danse Macabre.
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, France
Region: Europe
Date Late 15th century
Material Tempera on parchment
Location Bibliotheque de la Sorbonne, Paris, France
Credit Courtesy of Snark/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Larry SilverProfessor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Death leading a doctor holding a vial of urine. La Danse Macabre.

» Unknown artist, France

expert perspective

Larry Silver Larry Silver Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

In the late Middle Ages, death was a much more gripping and visible, palpable, almost frightening presence for people. And what we call charnel houses, which are places where the bones of the dead accumulate, were places that people sometimes would go for a frightening reminder of death. Often that was the place where wall paintings of what we call the ‘Dance of Death,’ a skeletal figure for each and every individual, each walk of life, was a long procession, one by one, with the figure of death.

To confront an image of a skeleton that’s supposed to be relevant to you as an individual means that you have to think about your salvation, and the fact that you could go at any day. In an era that was full of plagues, that was certainly an omnipresent threat. People had to stop and think about what their salvation meant and what it might mean to die very suddenly.

If you thumb through the pages of a Dance of Death series of prints, or if you go and visit the few remaining images of the Dance of Death on the walls of churches or church yards, you can get a pretty good sense of the total effect of seeing an entire society, with individuals representing their roles, accompanied each one of them by a figure of skeletal death.” 

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