The Dance of Death

O prudent creature
Desirous of eternal life
Here is a remarkable doctrine
How to terminate your mortal life
The Dance of Death reminds us
That everyone must learn the dance
Man or woman it is all the same
Death spares neither small nor large.
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The subject matter

Death was an everyday occurrence in the 15th century as the Black Death and War particularly the One Hundred Years War had decimated the population which was reduced by fifty percent between 1350 and 1450. Because of this the church focussed on preparing for death as very important and worthy of reflection. Artistic endeavour of this period displays this preoccupation via the poems of François Villon, mystery plays and also in church paintings and sculptures.

The main aim of the Dance of Death, which was initially illustrated in the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris at the beginning of the 15th century, was to display the uniformity of all people faced with death and its inevitability. This is shown by emaciated beings needing something from the so-called powerful of this world whether clerics or laymen as they are dying.

In La Chaise-Dieu the representations of death are not actually skeletal but still have skin on their bones and are jesting. The twenty four living beings are divided into three sections, the powerful, the middle class and the ordinary people. Between these three panels, painted on pillars characters explaining the situation come face to face with themselves. On the first pillar, Adam and Eve are featured and a priest is shown on the first and last pillar. Below a space was reserved for a poem or a catechistic reading.

The work itself

The painting stretches across three panels and four pillars: The pillar paintings were executed directly onto stone (dry painting known as secco) where the absence of any glaze accounts for their poor state of preservation, however, the panel paintings were fashioned on mortar (wet painting known as fresco). It has long been the subject of debate as to whether the works on the pillars and the panels are by the same hand. Close examination of the pigments used and the shared references to the fresco at the cemetery of the Holy Innocents indicate that in fact, they are by the same artist.

The unfinished nature of this work is apparent; one opinion being that this feature is purely the result of decay, however, Didier Legrand, the most recent conservator of the work, believes that the artist may have intentionally left it in this incomplete state.

The work is difficult to date with certainty but as much of the clothing appears to date from the time of Joan of Arc, it is quite probable that it originated around the middle of the 15th Century. The artist’s identity is still a mystery and some later alterations have been made to the work. For instance, it is not easy to justify the presence of an old hurdy-gurdy on a stand in the shape of a lute as these were flat in the 15th Century and the rounded shape only emerged a century later, on the other hand, selected characters have been retouched in charcoal using bolder strokes. The fact that the work is sited outside the choir area suggests that it was intended for contemplation by pilgrims rather than by the monks themselves. The artist’s design shows remarkable style and vivacity making it comparable to a work by 20th century artist.

The difficult identification of certain characters

The characters featured in The Dance of Death conform to the hierarchical order of that time, monks and laymen alternate and there is a noticeable paucity of women characters. According to research conducted by Patric Rossi, the panels can be classified as follows:

The first panel features the Powerful in society:

Premier panneau The Pope/The Emperor/The Cardinal Legate/The King/The Cardinal/The Supreme Commander/The Mitred Abbot/The Knight

The second panel features the Middle Class:

Deuxième panneau Erased character/The Benedictine/The Young Middle Class Person/The Canoness/The Trader/The Moniale Benedictine?/The Sergeant with yard?/The Carthusian monk

The final panel features the common people

Troisième panneau The Lover/The Nursing Brother?/The Minstrel/The Theologian/The Cistercian/The Child/The Lay Brother

The forthcoming journees-rencontres organised by the Friends of the Abbey will focus on the Dance of Death