Newswise — The macabre encounter of skeletons mocking the living has haunted Case Western Reserve University art historian Elina Gertsman’s imagination since childhood walks with her grandfather through the St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn (now the Art Museum of Estonia).

That childhood fascination led to Gertsman’s newly published book, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance (Brepols, 2010), a rare and long-awaited volume on the subject.

What she first observed at St. Nicholas’s was a fragment of 13 life-size figures from the original 48 to 50 images that comprised the church’s enormous and important Dance of Death painting. The work, painted on canvas, is by German artist Bernt Notke and among the last of such images remaining in Europe.

The Dance of Death is a late medieval genre that, when incarnated as a large-scale public artwork, often combines images and text. It also demands interactivity with the viewer, who is engaged into the visual and verbal dialogue between the opposing protagonists of the procession, Gertsman said.

“These images certainly demonstrate the equalizing force of death,” said Gertsman, assistant professor in art history at Case Western Reserve University. “Death mocks men and women, and kills them. The living try to resist but always fail.”

She elaborated: “But it is so much more than that. The Dance is also about medieval conceptions of dancing and their intertwinement with death, about the relationship between image and performance, about preaching and anxieties associated with 15th-century cultural, social and religious climates.” It is ultimately, Gertsman suggests, about the place of the viewer before an experiential image.

The procession of figures often starts with a pope and then alternates with skeletons or corpses by societal hierarchy from the rich to the poor, the powerful to the powerless. It includes both young and old, lay people and clerics.

The Dance may begin, Gertsman said, with a preacher or figure standing on a raised pulpit and speaking directly to the viewer: “Oh, reasonable creature, poor or rich, look into this mirror, young and old” and exhorting him or her to heed death’s approach.

The text accompanying the macabre images creates a dialogue between the living and Death. In the end, Death always triumphs. Although the Dances include religious figures, often very little is mentioned of God.

Some of that dialogue, Gertsman said, can be humorous. For example, Death pokes fun at a merchant who refuses to die before completing a business transaction or tells an abbot that “the fat one always roasts first.”

Over the past years, the art historian’s interest in the Dance of Death has taken her to churches, cloisters, cemeteries and libraries throughout Europe.

She traveled with a German friend, Almut Breitenbach, a literary expert, who has a manuscript in progress about German Dance of Death texts.

Gertsman recalled the two sitting in the small church in Meslay-le-Grenet in Eure-et-Loire and sharing what each saw in the images and text.

While the images may not startle today’s audience that has become accustomed to bloody scenes on the news and in movies, she said on the medieval population such public murals had a different impact.

“Medieval men and women died younger and death was everywhere to be seen, but seeing it encoded in this type of visual imagery that demanded interaction must have been tremendously compelling,” she said.

Much like information becomes viral in today’s information age, this genre spread through Western Europe. The earliest extant Dance of Death text, from ca. 1400, is found in Spain. Some 25 years later, a famous mural that combined text and image appeared in Paris, at the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents. Prints of that mural may have inspired many other Dances.

By the 1500s, Gertsman said, the Dance of Death and the dynamics of its viewing transformed, as is most clearly seen in the prints designed by Hans Holbein the Younger.

“The intimate relationship that bound Death, the dancers and the audience in the medieval life-sized Dances,” Gertsman said, “is purposefully dispelled in Holbein’s prints.”

Dozens of images still exist, but many others from the 1400s have been destroyed, some painted over and replaced with more fashionable subject matter, said Gertsman.

But for those interested in the macabre art and text of the past, the remaining images can sweep the viewer back in time to see another form of public art.

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The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance