Of dead kings, dukes and constables: the historical context of the Danse Macabre in late medieval Paris
By Sophie Oosterwijk
Journal of the British Archaeological Association, Vol. 161 (2008)
Abstract: The starting point in most studies on the medieval Danse Macabre is the mural that was created in the cemetery of Les Saints Innocents in Paris in 1424-25. Yet scholars have previously paid little attention to the historical circumstances surrounding the creation of this scheme during the Anglo-Burgundian occupation of the French capital. Especially the dual presentation of the king as both a victim of Death amidst the ranks of the living and as a worm-eaten corpse at the end of the scheme is intriguing in view of the deaths in quick succession of Henry V of England and Charles VI of France in 1422. Contemporaries in Paris and London (where John Lydgate’s Middle English adaptation of the French poem was incorporated into another painted scheme at Old St Paul’s Cathedral around 1430) could not help but be reminded of the fact that both their countries were without a crowned king at this time. It is these topical references that help explain the quick rise to fame of what at first sight might seem just another medieval didactic lesson about mortality and sin. A case is presented for the deployment of ‘cryptoportraits’ in the imagery and a novel suggestion made as to the previously unidentified patron behind the Paris mural.
Introduction: The danse macabre mural that was created in the cemetery of Les Saints Innocents in Paris in 1424–25 is the earliest known occurrence in art of a theme which was to become popular all over Europe. Its accompanying verses were translated into Middle English by John Lydgate (c. 1371–1449), after the poet visited Paris probably in 1426. The Danse macabre poem presents a dialogue between Death or representatives of the dead — for the original French text has le mort (the dead figure) instead of la mort (death) — and the living from all walks of life, while combining a didactic message about mortality and sin with social satire. Much has been written about the origins of this medieval theme, and about the possibility of a (lost) prototype of the poem, perhaps in Latin. The author of the French verses used at Les Innocents is unknown, but nearly half a century before the mural was painted we ﬁnd the line ‘Jefis de Macabré la dance’ (I made/did the dance of macabree) in the poem Le respit de la mort written in 1376 by Jehan le Fèvre. If this line can be taken as evidence of the earlier occurrence of the theme as we now know it, why did the danse macabre rise to fame only when incorporated in a mural scheme that was created in a period of major political upheaval?