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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

Additional Resources

Binski, Paul. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Eichenberg, Fritz. The Dance of Death: A Graphic Commentary on the Danse Macabre through the Centuries. New York: Abbeville Press, 1983.

“Danse Macabre, Dance of Death, Todtentanz.” In The Fantastic in Art and Fiction. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library Web site. http://fantastic.library.cornell.edu/dance.php.

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

» Unknown artist, France

La Dance Macabre or “Dance of Death” is a medieval parable on the universality of death.

Its lesson: Death will come to everyone, no matter what his or her status in life. A scene from the Dance of Death is the focal point of the manuscript page seen here. The illustration, set above two columns of text, shows Death, personified as a skeleton, tugging at the sleeve of a doctor whom he leads toward the great unknown beyond the edge of the image’s frame. The rest of the page is covered in floral and arabesque motifs, the elegant beauty of which contrasts sharply with the grim skulls placed at various points along the edges.

In this scene, as in other versions of the Dance of Death, the doctor holds up a vial of urine to the light, inspecting it for disease. In a German manuscript created around the same time, a similar image is accompanied by these lines written in the doctor’s voice: “If I’m looking correctly at my water, / then my [medical] art is totally done. / Now I can no longer save my own life, / Even if I were given half a pharmacy.” The doctor, despite his knowledge and resources, is no more able to escape death than the aristocrats, bishops, plowmen, and scholars who appear in other Dance of Death scenes.

Widespread illness was a fact of life for medieval Europeans. The Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, devastated the population in the fourteenth century. Dance of Death imagery both reflected the constant presence of death in their lives and reinforced it, demanding that viewers contemplate their end and prepare their souls for judgment.

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