Dance Macabre:  Death and the Maiden
The people of the Middle Ages and Renaissance understood what it meant to look like “death warmed over.”  In a time of strict Christianity, which emphasized heavenly reward in the afterlife, stories and images of death abounded.  When the Black Death arrived on Italian shores in the mid-fourteenth century, the medieval culture transformed into a living counterpart to these folk ideas.   The “carpe diem” of the ancient world transformed into the Medieval “memento mori” and death became a “universal equalizer” among all men, kings and peasants, popes and prostitutes alike.  Society was now subject to a powerful new genre graphically depicting Death and its henchmen in the weird works of the Danse Macabre. 
Is it any wonder that the medieval man felt such closeness with death?  After all, life is but non-actualized death.  It was a time of great anxiety filled with repeated disasters.  There was warfare, chronic famine, financial collapse, and disease.  Additionally, the Roman Catholic Church, the one institution that held Western Europe together, was itself embroiled in change particularly during the scandal of the Schism, the Reformation, and the consequent re-organization that rocked the religion and the populace to the core.
The Danse Macabre evolved from a series of poems relating to the living encountering the dead.  Though this paper focuses primarily on the pictorial imagery of the Danse Macabre, there is a brief discussion of the literature from which the Danse originated.  Eventually, these poems found visual expression through murals and woodblock printings. 
Though the initial images were mostly masculine in nature, a secondary strand of the Danse evolved to include the theme of “Death and the Maiden”. Of all the images related to the Danse Macabre, these are some of the most shocking.  Death is shown with a female dance partner, women of all ages from old crone to girl, virgin to mature mother.
In some of the images, there is an erotic tension between the woman and Death, bordering on the necrophilial in nature. Women are the harbingers of life and their potential to bring new life is the perfect counter-balance to Death.  However, therein lies the ironic twist:  the life-bringers, and those who are birthed, are also subject to death.  In mixing the iconography of death and the maiden, the artists of the time created a visual tension reflecting that found within society:  the struggle for life to flourish in the face of the inevitable and overwhelming countenance of death.
Despite the obvious correlations to the Black Death, the origin of the Danse Macabre remains enigmatic.  Fritz Eichenbert proposes that the dialogue between Man and Death may have originated in Indian or Arabic poetry and immigrated to Christian Europe.  Scholarship agrees that this emphasis on post-death existence in Europe began within the sermons of the priests.  The Church found that the most efficient way of finding and holding followers was to describe the Last Judgment and the afterlife in Heaven or Hell.  These ideologies focused on the inevitability of death, which quickly became a favored subject of church sermons and imagery.   The priests began to describe the fall of the flesh from beauty to rot.  According to Florence Warren, the “medieval preacher [would] point to his audience to the skulls and bones of the departed, bidding them reflect how all of the beauty of life are gone.”   As a grinning skull replaced the plush lips and pleasant face, the healthy body also fell prey to the maggots in the grave.
Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Death and the Maiden (1517). Engraving.  As retrieved from on March 28, 2007
“Triumphant Death”, anonymous. Early sixteenth century. Drawing on parchment.  Size unknown.  As retrieved from on March 28, 2007.
"Death and the Maiden", Hans Baldung Grien, 1517.
"The Three Ages and Death", Hans Baldung Grien. (1510).  Oil painting, as reproduced by  © Bridgeman Art Library /Prado, Madrid, Spain. Retrieved on March 28, 2007.
Hans Holbein the Younger, “Escutcheon.” (1538) Print, scanned from Gundersheimer, Werner L., Introduction.  The Dance of Death By Hans Holbein the Younger:  A Complete Facsimile of the Original 1538 Edition of Les simularcheres & histories faces de la mort. New York:  Dover Publications, 1971.

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Research indicates that France was the origin of the imagery, publicly depicted in wall murals, possibly conceiving the characters from mystery plays.  Though the Danse spreads to Germany, Italy, England, and elsewhere, these appear to be copies of the original French ideal.  The wall paintings had more popularity than the plays and eventually became the dominant expression of death imagery of this period.  Replicas of the original works are found in German xylographic reproductions during the late 1400s.   These reproductions were inexpensive and numerous, in allowance with the popular appeal of the Danse.
The Parisian cemetery of the Church of the Innocents (Cimetiere des Innocents) depicted the first known and positively dated Danse Macabre mural.  The cemetery was originally part of the original market area of les Champeaux. The work was begun in 1424 and completed six months later. The cemetery’s wall mural was an alarming parade of practitioners of death. Perhaps based upon a poem about death written by Jean Gerson, the chancellor of the University of Paris, the character of Death was personified as a decomposing being who advised the living. The images were humorous and filled with slapstick, alternating laity with clergy in a line of “dance partners.”
This was an apt place to display the imagery, for this cemetery was designed for quick burial of the dead.  Its ground was known for its unusual ability to dissolve the flesh from bodies in a very short time. In addition to common graves, an ossuary was set up and filled with the bones of the dead.
Due to the disrepair of the walls, the original frescoes were destroyed when the walls were taken down in the 1600s; however, one enterprising individual, Guyot Marchant, created a book of woodcut prints of the fresco, which was published in Paris in 1485.
Iconologica, “Death”. Print produced by Maser, Edward, trans.  Cesare Ripa:  Baroque and Rococo Pictoral Imagery:  The 1758 – 60 Hertel edition of Ripa’s “Iconologica” with 200 Engraved Illustrations.”  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc. 1971.
Iconologica, “Life”. Print produced by Maser, Edward, trans.  Cesare Ripa:  Baroque and Rococo Pictoral Imagery:  The 1758 – 60 Hertel edition of Ripa’s “Iconologica” with 200 Engraved llustrations.”  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc. 1971.
Women were not originally depicted in the Danse Macabre.  Marchant, himself, is one of the first to correct this oversight.  In 1486 he created the “Danse macabre des femmes,” though this rendition was much less popular than the original and reproductions are much harder to find.  Later Danse compilations combined the genders into “Danse macabre des homes et des femmes.”  In the second half of the fifteenth century, both a woodprint book called “La Grant Danse des Femmes” was produced by Martial d’Auvergne, and the church of La Chaise-Dius in Auvergne created one of the final great French wall murals; it introduced two women to its line-up.
While women did not appear in the Parisian Cemetery of the Innocents imagery, they had a much older origin in Germany.  Painted on the walls of a nunnery in Klingenthal in Klein-Basel, the unknown artist included seven female figures in a processional of death.
It is with this secondary resurrection of the Danse Macabre that the maiden is introduced in sexually charged imagery. Combined with these new ideas, the Danse Macabre takes dramatic evolutionary steps in depicting life and death.  In a thematic look at the Danse, observers can see an evolution of imagery from mildly sensual to overtly erotic.
Many of the images show women, as the creatrix, countered by her opposing image, male Death.  It is more than simply combining two opposites; these images also have a relationship to the production of life with both male and female and may have reflected reality.  A significant percentage of young women, and their babies, died during pregnancy and childbirth in the Middle Ages.   Awareness of this very real danger had a notable effect on domestic art.  
The writings of Cesare Ripa give some insights into this tension through his analysis of imagery studied in his Iconologia first published in 1593.  In it, he attempts to classify the symbolism of the art that he studied, utilizing classical literary references such as Aristotle, Ovid, Homer and Pliny for many of his sources.  However, as common to the time period, Ripa also adds Christian allegories to his interpretations, reflecting one of the predominant cultural institutions of the time.

Death and a nun. Basel, originally at the Klingenthal.
German artist and contemporary of Holbein, Hans Sebald Beham, shows the tension between sexuality, knowledge, and death.  As with Holbein, the conflict also begins within the Garden. His engraving, Adam and Eve shows the first couple of creation under the forbidden tree, which has taken on the form of a skeleton.  A serpent, the Tempter, twines around the skeleton’s neck.  Both Adam and Eve are naked, although Eve holds one arm above her hand, raising her breasts.  The other hand covers her genitals, subtly drawing the eye to the area.  Adam stands fully exposed, but not aroused, beside her.  He holds the forbidden fruit in his hand and contemplates eating it.  The skeleton unabashedly gazes at Eve, who, in having eaten of the fruit already, knows the forbidden knowledge.  Her sexually suggestive pose also relates to the ideas of St. Augustine:  the fruit created knowledge of lustful sensuality.  Woman will become the bearer of new life, but in creating life she also creates death. 
Holbein the Younger shows that the battle between life (male, female and reproduction) and Death begins with Adam and Eve.  Here, the artist shows the Genesis story with the creation of the first couple.  However, one plate captures interest.  Adam, having been cast from the Garden, toils side-by-side with a skeleton in a field.   Eve sits behind them suckling an infant.  While Adam must cultivate a living from the land, Eve must use her own body to sustain her child, Cain, who will murder his brother.  The child she nurses is destined to kill, and to die himself.  Mankind, now, is born to a world of toil and fated to die.   The connection of life and death begins in this world, so far removed from Paradise.  
In the vein of the duality of male, female, and death, Holbein also created an image of “The Escutcheon of Death.”  Here, Adam and Eve are transformed into a well-dressed man and woman who stand on either side of an hourglass, representing the passage of time.  Beneath the hourglass is the skull representing the inevitable end to life.  Above the hourglass emerge two skeletal hands holding a stone above the timing device, prepared to crush it.  The man looks away from the scene, one hand gesturing towards it.  The woman stares at the hourglass, as if mesmerized.  Her direct stare shows that she and death are intricately connected.
Another anonymous artist created a color drawing in the genre of “Triumphant Death” on a parchment paper, created sometime in the early 16th century.  This image is unique because of the figures standing below the skeleton:  over the chaos of death, depicted by a pile of the dying, stands a nearly nude man and woman.  The woman is cloaked in a blue garment, which leaves her breasts exposed, and upon her head she balances a platter that holds a heart.  Above them, perched atop a skull, a skeleton stands, a bow and arrow, symbolic of the plague, in his hands.  An hourglass, nearly devoid of sand, is positioned between them.

Hans Baldung Grien, a contemporary of Holbein, seems to specifically specialize in encounters between sumptuous curvaceous females and rotten Death.  A prime example of his work is aptly named Death and the Maiden (1517)  (See Appendix, Figure 7).  A cadaverous death, still wrapped in his burial cloth, drags a young woman by the hair to her grave.  Her voluptuous body is completely naked except for a light gossamer cloth that flows from her shoulder and wraps around her hips.  Her face is plaintive, tears flow from her eyes, and her hands are clasped as she begs death to let her go.  Death answers her by gesturing to the grave with his right hand.  She does not struggle, for it is the inevitable end for all to succumb to the will of death.
Hans Baldung grows bolder as a more erotic tone emerges in “The Three Ages and Death.”   In it, cadaverous Death leads a naked old woman away by the arm.  In his hand he holds the hourglass, nearly devoid of sand.  The old woman looks back to a young maiden as she and Death pass.  The elder reaches out and places one hand upon the younger woman’s shoulder while her other hand pulls away a drapery covering the maiden’s body.  The maiden is a contrast to the old woman:  her breasts are strong, her hips broad, her body taunt.  At the maiden’s feet lies what she, herself, will bring forth:  an infant girl.  These are the three ages:  the child will grow up to become the maiden and bear children, but will age into the old woman who will be taken by death.  The natural cycle will continue unabated.
Finding a niche in this genre, Baldung continued with a sensuous encounter between beautiful young woman and cadaverous Death.  In Die Eitelkeit  (See Appendix, figure 9), Death stands with a young woman who gazes at her own reflection in a mirror and fixes her hair.  She is, again, naked, with a gossamer cloth covering her hips.  This time, however, the Death holds the end of the garment, as if preparing to remove it.  At her feet a child gazes through the other end of the cloth, while an old woman, partially hidden by the foliage, looks at the hourglass in Death’s hand.  The concept of the three ages of women is again reiterated.

Hans Baldung. Death and the Maiden. (1510). Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.  As retrieved from on March 28, 2007.
Baldung’s engraving, “Death and the Lady,” takes the relationship between Death and the maiden to another level. Here, a woman sprawls on top of her covers, naked and asleep.  One leg falls from the bed leaving her in a suggestive position; her arm supports her head, lifting her breast toward the viewer.  A winged skeleton holding an hour-glass climbs into the bed with her.  Death is omnipresent, while the maiden’s beauty and fertility are fleeting to time.
The Dance becomes more erotic with an active relationship between death and the maiden.  Here the maiden poses, showing her beauty and poise.   Death, in the form of a skeleton, spoons against her, pulling down her dress and reaching for her bosom.  Her beauty will fade to death; already her long blonde braids end in gray.  The lovely dress, the youthful strong body, the proud stance will fall to death.
Yet, her interaction pales in comparison with the highly erotic depiction belonging to artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch. His “Death and the Maiden” painting is created in black and white imagery, which augments the already powerful duality of the work.  A cadaverous skeleton pauses with a voluptuous maiden to embrace under a cloud-laden darkened sky.  They are engaged in rough kissing, with her full and fleshly lips pressed to his cadaverous skull.  Her head, with elaborately entwined braids and curls, counters his bald countenance, though a few dead hairs still cling to the rotted scalp and flutter in the wind. One withered arm disappears behind her, as if holding her still, and a rotted leg thrusts in front of her to balance the pair awkwardly. His other arm reaches under her dress, pulling it up and touching her maidenhead. She does not resist, and appears to be encouraging him by holding her hand over his.
The image is both repellant and engaging.  The cadaver and the woman complete a form of circuit.  He covers her face, an area of great beauty and expression for the living.  Her mouth and nose are blocked from view; Death blocks the areas necessary for the body to receive life-sustaining sustenance and oxygen.  His other hand reaches for her vaginal area, exposing her strong legs in the process.  He shows her beauty, but that beauty will eventually fade to death.  He blocks the viewer from her maidenhead, effectively shutting down the area from which she can produce life.  She, the living, is now trapped in the circle of death.

In the Frescoe of Berne, date unknown. 
Hans Holbein the Younger, “Genesis II and III”, (1543).  Print, scanned from Gundersheimer, Werner L., Introduction.  The Dance of Death By Hans Holbein the Younger:  A Complete Facsimile of the Original 1538 Edition of Les simularcheres & histories faces de la mort. New York:  Dover Publications, 1971.
Hans Sebald Beham, Adam and Eve (1543).   Engraving. As reproduced from  Retrieved on March 28, 2007.
Hans Sebald Beham, “Death and the Lady” (1548).  Engraving. As retrieved from on March 28, 2007.