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La danse macabre: The Dance of Death
(pron. law DAWN-S mah-kaw-h-b) The Dance of Death emerged in response to feudalism and the Black Death of 1347-50, which killed a quarter of Europe’s population. Sufferers of the plague, war, poverty and genocidal famine danced in desperation in graveyards, surrounded by symbols of death. Dancers represented bishops, kings, and Peasants- showing that all are equal in the end. The theme continued into theater, dance, literature and graphics by showing Death as one of the dancers avenging the sufferering peasants. Hans Holbein’s Totentanz, Wurzburg, Germany has Death demonstrating the vanity of wealth and rank. La danse macabre of the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris shows death leading a daisy chain of people into the tomb. La Danse de la Mort created at the same time is re-enacted on All Soul’s Day with people dressed up as the dead. This is also popular in Spain and is called la Dança General de la Muerte. The Castillian dance is a spiral dance, danced in rounds around a totem. The dancers are in constant movement, some fall to the ground, and others convulse into spasms. Death is seen as a skeleton that plays a flute, xylophone, violin, harp, bagpipe or other musical instrument and directs the dance of the skeletons or invites the living to dance. Medieval singers complete the theater. There are more than 50 texts with songs in different languages derived from the dance and other small dances that have similar graphic elements. (24, 25)

Death and the maiden, which will culminate in Germany at the Renaissance. In many dances of Death already figured a representation of Death with a fine lady or with a beautiful virgin. The image of a young woman was also found in the three ages and Death. [triple precept: death is unexpected, inevitable and restores the equality between the men.] However in both cases, there was no trace of erotism. But with Death and the maiden theme, something new happened. People discovered a dark bound between sexuality and death. In this type of iconography, the young lady was not involved in a dance anymore, but in a sensual intercourse. Unlike the dance of death, the Death and the maiden pictures don’t have any verses to explain them. – Patrick Pollefeys

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© 1998. Christine O’Keeffe, Ver. 3.0. Saturday, November 9, 2002