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What is the Danse Macabre?

Niki Acker
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, is an artistic theme, particularly in medieval art, in which a personified Death collects people from all walks of life. The people are typically shown as skeletons or corpses in a procession, usually dancing. Alternatively, the dance may be circular in formation, and the dancers may appear in their living form with skeletons as dance partners. The Danse Macabre, sobering but often darkly comic, makes the point that we are all equal in the grave. This theme has been used since the 15th century in paintings, theatre, music, literature, and later in film.

The Danse Macabre was first used in illustrations to sermon texts in the early 15th century, and the earliest painting of the theme, a fresco in the Parisian cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents, dates from 1424. In these early examples, the Danse Macabre was used to present a moral message by reminding the audience of the vanity of earthly wealth, power, and beauty. The people typically portrayed in the paintings are chosen to be representative of such mortal glories: common elements are a king, a pope, a youth, a beautiful girl, and often a peasant, included to show that the others are no better than the lowliest of people in death.

Many Medieval Danse Macabre paintings, especially large frescoes, also include a text depicting the dialogue between death and his victims. Similar dialogues were used as the text of medieval traveling plays, and books with related drawings and text date from the mid-15th century. Musical compositions inspired by these themes include works by Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns.

The Danse Macabre allegory is typical of late medieval mores, which became very pessimistic and morbid as a result of the devastating epidemics of the 14th century. Known as the Black Death and commonly believed to have been caused by the bubonic plague, it claimed somewhere between 33 and 66 percent of the European population and made the survivors very aware of their mortality. Much of the art and music dating from this period deals with themes of death.

The word macabre, used to describe any morbid or death-related art or literature, is a reference to the Danse Macabre. Originally, the French term is believed to have been based on the Latin Chorea Machabæorum or "Dance of the Maccabees," supposedly referring to the grisly martyrdom of a family of eight described in the Biblical text 2 Maccabees.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Musical Expert editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By popcorn — On Aug 28, 2011

@animegal - I think that a lot of popular art forms have adopted the idea of The Dance Macabre into their creative workings to give us material that is dark and deals with death in way that lets us really see it as the equalizer it is.

Stephen King also wrote a non-fiction book with the same title, Danse Macabre, but he dealt more with what could be called "the psychology of terror" and how it works on a social level. I suppose that because Stephen King is so famous for frightening people with his horror novels that looking at death at the level of popular culture is a unique way to start traveling back through how it has been portrayed in history.

By animegal — On Aug 28, 2011

The Danse Macabre was used as a title to one of my favorite books by Laurell K. Hamilton. It is part of her Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series that deals mostly with an alternate reality where vampires have rights and the general population is aware of their existence.

I always wondered what Danse Macabre actually meant so after reading the article I can see why Laurell choose that title. The novel deals with some interesting aspects of death, and what it means to be equal after you've passed away. I suppose when it comes to vampires The Danse Macabre has a pretty special meaning.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 27, 2011

I have an artistic friend who is a big fan of the Danse Macabre paintings. He agrees so much with the theme of equality in death that he has started his own series of paintings in that vein.

The scene is always modern day. His first painting of the series shows beautiful, rich Hollywood girls and guys dancing in a night club. Every person has a drink in their hand. He used highly transparent paint for the flesh and clothing, so you can see the skeleton painted underneath each body.

The second painting shows scantily clad dancers holding a pose. Between every living dancer is a skeleton dancer holding the exact same position.

By StarJo — On Aug 26, 2011

I can’t even imagine the horror of living in a time of so much death. If that much of the population died, then probably nearly everyone who survived lost someone close to them, or even their entire family.

When someone I love dies, I become very absorbed with thoughts of death and the afterlife. Questions rule my mind, and I think about it so much that I forget to live my life for awhile. I have never painted any death scenes or written songs about death, but since people write or paint from the heart, I can see how that time period would have been filled with death.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Musical Expert editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range...
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