I love dispatch I strike at once
The wit, the wise, the fool, the dunce;
The steel-clad soldier, stout and bold,
The miser with his treasur’d gold;
The studious sage, and matron grave,
The haughty noble, and the slave,
I strip, with unrelenting paw,
The ermine from the man of law:
Disrobe the prelate of his his lawn;
And dim with clouds the op’ning dawn…
The Danse Macabre probably arose in early 15th century Europe as a response to the widespread deaths caused by The Black Death plague.
The earliest examples of the genre were painted as frescoes on church walls and the motif – essentially reminding people that life is short and death catches up to everyone – became popular in artwork across the continent, notes Paul K. The series of paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger in the latter half of the 16th century are the best known examples.
As Helen Durndell writes, “the first modern Dance of Death is attributed to Johann Rudolf Schellenberg (1740-1806). His Freund Heins Erscheinungen in Holbeins Manier was published in 1785 with an accompanying text by the German writer and satirist Johann Karl August Musäus (1735-1787)… Schellenberg abandoned Holbein’s characters and scenes in favour of contemporary events and different modes of death, such as the suicide, or the accident. He depicted modern day people and settings, creating a series of vignettes and predicaments, etched in a simple rococo style. This allowed for satiric comment on current events.”
In one scene from 1785, passengers plunge to their deaths from one of the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloons, which had been invented in 1783.
Death, who never sleeps, uses his time to keep abreast of fashion and dreaming up new creative ways to die. This delights him no end, because Death is always smiling.
These aquatints are on the engravings by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) who added an English flavour to the mix. Together with words by Dr William Coombe, Death is portrayed as a skeleton with rictus grin who does for a “motley parade of caricatures and stereotypes with exaggerated facial features and gruesome expressions”.
The English Dance of Death by Thomas Rowlandson was released in under-subscribed installments between 1814 and 1816.
A series of 96 hand-coloured engravings that gravitate between grotesque and humorous were perhaps more than a little ambitious, even for this pair, says Paul K, who had already achieved great popularity with their Dr. Syntax comical publications a few years earlier. The remainedered subscriptions were bound in 2 volumes for general sale. There was a 3rd Dance of Life book issued later.
See also: José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).
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