The Danse Macabre, also called the Dance of Death in English, is an artistic genre of allegory on the universality of death: no matter one's station or status in life: eventually, death will take all of us.
Typically, death is personified in paintings as skeleton moving around representatives from all social layers: kings and emperors, nobles and clergymen, and laborers and peasants. The concept has its roots in the Late Middle Ages, as murals painted on cemetery walls. The first known example was painted on the south wall of the cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris in 1424-25. Although the mural was destroyed in 1669 because of a road widening, the individual scenes are largely known from the cycle La Danse macabre, published in 1485 by the Parisian printer Guyot Marchant, to which accompanying dialogue verses were added.
Fragments from Guyot Marchant's Danse Macabre. For texts, see University of Rochester (with English translation)
In 1440, a fresco was painted on the inside of the cemetery wall of the Dominican cemetery in Basel, Switzerland. Today, only a beautiful watercolor copy by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend exists, the mural was destroyed in the first decade of the 19th century. Other murals were painted in Lübeck, Talinn (Estonia) and in several places in Istria around the same period.
The Basel Dance of Death, copy by Johann Rudolf Feyerabend (1806)
Another famous example originating in Basel are the woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), which he drew in 1526. The first edition, containing 41 woodcuts, was published in France in 1538. By 1562, there were eleven editions and estimates are that up to a hundred unauthorized copies and imitations were printed throughout the 16th century. Holbein's series shows the figure of "Death" in many disguises.
The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526
Even though the concept isn’t as widespread on cemeteries as it used to be, the ‘dance of the death’ concept remains to inspire artist of several disciplines. French composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his ‘Danse macabre’ in 1874. In my opinion, it is a masterpiece in telling the story of death: the violin screeching gives one goosebumps, the xylophone remembers one of rattling bones. If you’ve ever been to Dutch amusement park Efteling, you might know the show shown in the haunted castle. It shows a graveyard, and upon the clock striking twelve, Saint-Saëns piece starts playing and skeletons and ghosts rise from their graves. It is, indeed, quite a macabre attraction for a park originally intended for children.
Images courtesy of Efteling, retrieved from: Het Spookslot spookhuis - Efteling
This isn’t the only representation of the Danse Macabre to a young audience, though. Also Walt Disney picked up the theme: In the 1929 animated short ‘The Skeleton Dance’, four human skeletons dance and make music around a spooky graveyard based on Edvard Grieg’s ‘March of the Trolls’. Only Denmark shortly banned the film for being ‘too macabre’ in 1931. Animator of the film, Ub Iwerks, used the theme a couple of years later in his technicolored ‘Skeleton Frolic (1937), in which a skeleton band making funny music in an eerie graveyard, surrounded by wicked owls and terrifying black cats.
And even today, I know quite lot of songs addressing the ‘Danse Macabre’ or ‘Dance of the Death’, mostly from the metal genre. It is a theme that will probably always fascinate and frighten people – because, indeed, death might be the one thing that unites all.