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Danse Macabre, Dance of Death, Todtentanz

A grim saraband of skeletons, coming to take you away. Momento mori: remember that you must die. The middle ages preached this lesson with particular intensity. Graphic artists-- Hans Holbein most influentially-- responded to the urgency, to the undeniable power of this topos with scenes in which a dancing, skeletal Reaper came for the archbishop and the servant, the judge and the doctor, the mother and the child. In the nineteenth century the motif is re-energized by revolution and social upheaval, and heralds the arrival of a social fantastic with Alfred Rethel’s great series, Auch ein Todtentanz. Cornell’s extensive collection includes rare works that have never been reproduced in the literature devoted to the subject. Freund’s Heins Erscheinungen (in Holbein’s Manier) and Merkel and Flegel’s Bilder des Todes join Thomas Rowlandsonís satirical classic English Dance of Death, for especially remarkable depictions of suicide. The collection also contains early, important studies, like Peignot’s Recherches sur les danses des morts (1826), which links the theme to the iconography of playing cards; Achille Jubinal’s Explication de la danse des morts de la Chaise-Dieu (1841) a hand-colored example of early art-historical interest in ecclesiastical danse macabre frescoes; and E.-H. Langlois’s definitive Essai sur la danse des morts (1852).

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Studies:

  • Clark, James M. The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Glasgow: Jackson, 1950.
  • Collins, Marcia.The Dance of Death in Book Illustration. Exhibition Catalogue, Ellis Library, University of Missouri-Columbia, 1978.
  • Sara Webster Goodwin. Kitsch and Culture: The Dance of Death in Literature and Art. NY: Garland, 1986.
  • The Dance of Death from the XIIth to the XXth Century: The notable collection of Miss Susan Minns of Boston Mass. Auction Catalogue, published by the American Art Association, NY, 1922.

Literary works:

  • E. A. Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination.
  • Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Contes cruels.
  • Theophile Gautier, Contes fantastiques. Joan Kessler, ed. Demons of the Night.

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