Dancing with Death in Special Collections



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Home >> Special Collections & University Archives >> New Notable >> Dancing with Death in Special Collections

In celebration of Halloween, Special Collections is pleased to showcase several of its Danse Macabre works!  Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death, are allegorical works illustrating the universality of death.  Initially formatted as performances or paintings during the Medieval period, Danse Macabre was popularized in book form during the Bubonic Plague outbreaks of the fourteenth century.  The large loss of life served as a reminder of the uncertainty of life. Thus, Danse Macabre began to appear as illustrated manuscripts, block books, and early printed books.  These works portrayed Death, usually personified as a skeleton, leading people from all walks of life to the grave.  Wealth, occupation, age, and class made no difference.  These illustrated works typically represented the highest ends of society first and ended with the lower classes. 

In 1538, Hans Holbein the Younger created a series of Danse Macabre block prints that became one the most well-known representations of the Dance of Death genre.  Although Special Collections does not have a copy of the 1538 edition, we do have a later 1858 copy.  In addition, Special Collections also holds a rare eighteenth-century German hand-painted Danse Macabre manuscript.  Several of the images contain erased or smeared heads and limbs, giving the figures a ghostly appearance.  Another German work, titled Todten-Tanz (Dance of Death), is comprised of detailed copies of Matthaus Merian's famous plates of the Basel Totentanz. 

For more spooky materials in Special Collections, check out our Something Wicked This Way Comes Pinterest board!  Happy Halloween!

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