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The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance

The macabre encounter of skeletons mocking the living has haunted Case Western Reserve University art historian Elina Gertsman’s imagination since childhood walks with her grandfather through the St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn, Estonia (now the Art Museum of Estonia). That childhood fascination led to Gertsman’s newly published book, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance (Brepols, 2010), a rare and long-awaited volume on the subject. Gertsman is an assistant professor in the art history department, who started at the university in August. At Case Western Reserve University, she teaches courses on medieval art, including Gothic Art, Medieval Art, Women and Medieval Visual Culture and a seminar on Death in Medieval Art.

The Dance of Death is a late medieval genre that, when incarnated as a large-scale public artwork, often combines images and text. The procession of figures often starts with a pope and then alternates with skeletons or corpses by societal hierarchy from the rich to the poor, the powerful to the powerless. It includes both young and old, lay people and clerics.

The Dance may begin, Gertsman said, with a preacher or a long-suffering figure standing on a raised pulpit and speaking directly to the viewer: “Oh, reasonable creature, poor or rich, look into this mirror, young and old” and exhorting him or her to heed death’s approach.

The text accompanying the macabre images creates a dialogue between the living and Death. In the end, Death always triumphs. Although the Dances include religious figures, often very little is mentioned of God.

“These images certainly demonstrate the equalizing force of death,” Gertsman said. “Death mocks men and women, and kills them. The living try to resist but always fail.

“But it is so much more than that. The Dance is also about medieval conceptions of dancing and their intertwinement with death, about the relationship between image and performance, about preaching and anxieties associated with 15th-century cultural, social and religious climates.” It is ultimately, Gertsman said, about the place of the viewer before an experiential image.

While the images may not startle today’s audience that has become accustomed to bloody scenes on the news and in movies, she said on the medieval population such public murals had a different impact.

“Medieval men and women died younger and death was everywhere to be seen, but seeing it encoded in this type of visual imagery that demanded interaction must have been tremendously compelling,” she said.

Much like information becomes viral in today’s information age, this genre spread through Western Europe. The earliest extant Dance of Death text, from ca. 1400, is found in Spain. Some 25 years later, a famous mural that combined text and image appeared in Paris, at the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents.  Prints of that mural may have inspired many other Dances.

Dozens of images still exist, but many others from the 1400s have been destroyed, some painted over and replaced with more fashionable subject matter, said Gertsman. But for those interested in the macabre art and text of the past, the remaining images can sweep the viewer back in time to see another form of public art.

Click here to see the Publisher’s page for this book

Source: Case Western Reserve University

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