9 July 2020

Danse Macabre, Not as Fun as it Sounds

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This is part of a student blog series as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Disease Ecology Class that our own Shane M Hanlon is currently teaching. Find out more about the series and read all the posts here!  

By Ryan Ponticelli

Wildlife diseases not only impact the health of humans and animals, but they also play a large role in generating artistic trends. One such trend in, or genre of, art was the Danse Macabre, also known as the Dance of Death. This French term comes from the artistic genre that was seen in 1250 to 1500 CE Europe, during the Late Middle Ages. It symbolizes the fact that the journey of life and death is expired by all, and is a uniting theme despite its morbid tone.  

The“so-called” Dance of Death would depict people from every class of society, the poor, the nobility, the pope, and the average joe; The Dance of Death was an artistic way to show that death is present in every class. When large scale epidemics hit the Earth, everyone suffers. Whether you’re broke or loaded, without the proper antibodies, diseases spread from wildlife were a real threat. This brought some sense of balance between the rich and the poor, a sense of shared struggle.

 But where do wildlife diseases fit into all of this? The Black Death, a plague you most likely know the name of, lives infamously due to it taking the lives of almost half of the Human Population. Caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the Black Death obviously left a huge emotional burden on those who survived to tell the tale; The Dance of Death theme was an art form that developed as a result of the widespread death. The German painter Bernt Notke, born in 1435 CE, was famous for his use of gothic themes and styles when painting. He is also the artist of one of the most cited examples of the Dance of Death theme. In his painting “Danse Macabre,” Notke shows us that he was a fantastic artist, but slept on creative titles.

The only remaining canvas painting featuring the Dance of Death from that time period, Danse Macabre showed peasants, popes, plebeians, all people, all in a dance with skeletons who walked them towards their death. The painting strikes its viewers, especially me, with its “in-your-face” way of talking about death. Because of his use of all people, rich or poor, and his nonchalant depiction of death, Notke reminded me that in the end, we are all meeting the same fate. We all will end when our time comes. Sad? Sure. Inspirational? I believe so. If we must all make such a walk, or dance, towards the end of our lives, we might as well try our best to enjoy every day like it may be our last.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons