Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Danse Macabre (The Dance of the Dead)

Climax of Igmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal.

The Danse Macabre was a religious allegory of the late Middle Ages calculated to turn men's thoughts to a Christian preparation for death. It was a reaction to the horrors of the 14th century's recurring famines, the Hundred Year War in France, and the scourge of the Black Death (plague). Millions of Europeans persished during this period. Estimates run as high as 50 million people or 60% of the population.

Produced by the church fathers as a "memento mori" to remind people that all human life is fragile and life's petty pleasures are fleeting, the Danse Macabre summons people from all stages and walks of life whether pope or layman, young or old, male or female, rich or poor. The universality of death is the great leveler that unites all.

Dutch Flagellants scourging themselves as penance.

The spectre of sudden death during this period of history increased the religious practice of saying penance and/or self-flagellation (whipping) by the faithful, but it also created a secular desire for amusement and diversion while people could still enjoy life's creature comforts. This expression of the struggle between the sacred and the profane played itself out in medieval society.

Outside of St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Lithuania.
Many paintings, book illustrations, and sculptures were commissioned by the Catholic Church to act as penitential lessons that even the illiterate majority could understand. Cathedrals often portrayed danse macabre images in sculptures adorning their exterior architecture.

The medieval morality play called The Summoning of Everyman was first performed in 1510 in front of church entrances to draw in the crowd. In the play, Everyman uses every argument he can to avoid his impending death before he gives up and seeks out the sacrament of the Last Rites. Only his good deeds go with him to the grave--a sober reminder to the faithful that worldly goods count for nothing in the next world.

The Pedlar from Hans Holbein's "Figure de la Morte." The pedlar seems to say, "I'm busy. Gotta run!" Death replies, "Not this day!"

Hans Holbein, the Younger created a series of forty-one woodcuts between 1523-1526 depicting the danse macabre morality tale. His work broadened the concept from its Catholic and Protestant origins into a more secular interpretation which eventually became the inspiration for Halloween.

On All Hallow's Eve (shortened to Halloween), the medieval Catholic church promoted the idea that the veil between the material world and the afterlife lifted. Annual harvest celebrations and village pageants drew revellers wearing masks and costumes dressed as corpses representing all strata of society. After a night of feasting and celebrating, a procession was led by priests to the church graveyard at midnight to lay flowers, leave votive candles, and pray for the souls of the dearly departed in preparation for fasting on All Saint's Day.

In Edgar Allen Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death written in 1842, medieval Prince Prospero and his wealthy and influential friends attempt to outsmart Death during the plague by hiding out in the prince's abbey. The results are predictable and serve as a cautionary tale for our own time as we struggle with the corona virus and the predictability of human behavior.

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