‘Peremptory Nullification’: Tragedy and Macabre Art
In the rich iconography that grew out of the early modern crisis of death, no motif enjoyed greater popularity, in northern Europe at least, than the Dance of Death. The earliest documented example of the Dance was the fresco from which the cycle derived its generic name, the celebrated Paris Danse macabre, painted on the cloister wall of the cemetery of Les Innocents. Accompanied by a series of moralising verses – reputedly the work of Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the Sorbonne, who may have devised the programme for the entire cycle – the mural depicted a hierarchically ordered chain of some thirty male figures, representing all ranks of society, each accompanied by a prancing figure of Death who summons him to join the grim dance to the grave. From this widely admired painting – destroyed in 1669, but surviving in the form of a late fifteenth-century woodcut copy – all other representations of the Dance are thought, whether directly or indirectly, to derive.
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