Monday, December 12, 2005

Death's Dance

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...

coloured engraving of seated skeleton from Rowlandson's 1815 English Dance of Death

The Danse Macabre, which I mentioned in passing in the Posada entry recently, probably arose in early 15th century Europe as a response to the widespread deaths caused by the plague - the 'black death'.

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. The series of paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger in the latter half of the 16th century are the best known examples.

The aquatints above are based on the engravings by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) who added an English flavour to the mix. Together with some rather insipid verse written by his associate Dr William Coombe, The English Dance of Death from the Designs by Thomas Rowlandson with Metrical Illustrations was released in under-subscribed installments between 1814 and 1816.

A series of 96 handcoloured engravings that gravitate between grotesque and humorous were perhaps more than a little ambitious, even for this pair, 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]


cruelanimal said...

These are terrific. The casualness of the settings makes them all the more striking. I especially like the telescope image. Obviously not the heavenly body the stargazer expected to see.

Anonymous said...

A very good write-up of how death came to be a part of the every day life of Europeans leading up to and culminating in the 15th century can be found at

Or, if you don't want to click the link, just Google for 'Death and Chess in Iconography', and look for the link to the '' page, as is in the link above.

peacay said...

Thanks anon.

Funnily enough, someone emailed me a couple of months ago with this image asking if I knew any more information or the somesuch.

And of course that italiascacchistica site you mention came up on searching. Interesting stuff for sure.

asleep said...

Hello there.
I've found your great blog of marvels only last week -exploring the archive now. Thanks for all your efforts.

I had come across a strange collection, including Rowlandson's work. Unfortunately, this strange collector does not bother with sources, information. Anyway, if you're interested:
(Several hundred images on a single page, >300mb -takes time.)

Smiling and waving,

peacay said...

Thanks for the kind words and the link.

I only partly loaded the page and am certain I've seen it before. If it was spread across a few pages it would be a bit more user friendly, although it's still good. I thought I had squirrelled the link away on delicious or posted here on the blog somewhere but I can't seem to find it. Maybe I ended up thinking it was just a bit too unfriendly.

In fact, after thinking about it, I'm pretty sure that images that I, myself, 'made up' (cropped, cleaned and configured) appear on that page: maybe I found it via an inbound link. Anyway, thanks!

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