Totentanz is the German term for a dance of death, often portrayed in late medieval art. The French call it danse macabre.
Above: “The Dance of Death” (1493) by Michael Wolgemut. Skeletons leap up from graves, play instruments and give each other high fives, with their tattered shrouds still wrapped around their shoulders.
This one is by Bernt Notke (click on image to enlarge). The skeletons alternate with popes, kings, artisans and commoners, arranged by rank. Death conquers and equalizes all social classes.
The skeletons are livelier than the living, kicking their heels in the air. The theme got a big boost with the Black Death from plague in the 14th century and from the slaughter of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between France and England.
The theme has turned up in many art forms, starting with poems, mime dances, and morality plays. Nineteenth century composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote piece of music called “Danse Macabre” which sets the scene perfectly, with the xylophone playing the bones.
Saint-Saens performed on orchestra via YouTube
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