Dancing with the Dance of the Dead : cemetery of the Innocents and the ramifications of the Macabre
M.A. Thesis, University of British Columbia, November (2004)
The following thesis discusses the very first depiction of the “Danse Macabre” (Dance of the Dead) at the Paris cemetery of the Holy Innocents. The mural, now known only through prints and literary descriptions, was painted in 1424-5 on the cloister wall of this prominent medieval burial ground, and depicted fifteen pairs of dancing partners arranged according to their station in late medieval secular or ecclesiastic society. The pairs, composed of one dead and one living partner, are framed by a scholarly figure, known as the Author, who introduces and concludes the dance. The mural was accompanied by written verses – a captivating and often humorous dialogue between the living and the dead – which were placed below each figure, further animating the image. Many medievalists have recognized the significance and influence of this first visual rendition of the “Danse Macabre”, as its verses and composition, although often modified, served as a model for many fifteenth century illustrations of the Dance of the Dead not just in France, but elsewhere in Western Europe. While it is probably true that the taste for the macabre within a broader public must in some way have been conditioned by the calamitous events of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, I argue that are very particular historical conditions that produced the “Danse Macabre” in Paris. Specifically, the first two decades of the fifteenth century were characterized by a renewed war with England and a series of assassinations and counter-assassinations of pretenders for the French Crown. I argue that the mural, whose verse originated in the theological circles of the University of Paris, had a twofold didactic purpose: on the one hand the mural emphasized the transitory nature of earthly life and promoted the religious message of piety and repentance by evoking a horrid image of the decomposing cadaver, and on the other it functioned as a social critique. Employing the language of allegory, the University, itself profoundly invested in the political situation of the time, used the “Danse Macabre”, with its theme of death as the ultimate equalizer to contest the political machinations over kingship and establish its own position as society’s dominant rationalizing authority.