Today begins the Christian season of Allhallowstide – the three holy days dedicated to remembering the dead: those who have been “hallowed” or sainted, all Christian souls and, in some churches, souls in Hell. A series of ancient feasts that can be dated to pre-Christian times they combine folk traditions with the liturgical. In both pagan and Christian mythology there was a night when the barrier between the real world and the spirit world became blurred. It was believe that on that night the restless souls of the dead wandered the earth – particularly those who had not achieved bliss or at the least purgatory. To appease the benevolent ghosts candles were lit and graves decked in flowers; to ward off the malevolent spirits grotesque images were placed in windows and on door steps, and loud noises made to keep them at bay.
In many traditions people donned disguises to fool Death so that should he be stalking the neighbourhood he was unable to identify them and passed them by. The finality of all manner and stations joining in the final dance to the grave was an ever present image in most communities.
|The last letter of Hans Holbein the younger’s
Dance of Death Alphabet – after the message
of Death the Leveler comes the equally
leveling redemption of the Resurrection.
From the 1300s onward the Dance of Death was a popular subject to both edify the general public and, if possible, scare them on to the path of righteousness. In line with church doctrine it also made the peasant feel equal to the noble – perhaps it would take the King’s silk robe longer to rot in the grave than the beggar’s rags but eventual all man would “come to dust”. In a time when death came early, war was constant and violent, and plagues – including the Black Death – emptied entire villages it was a subject of frescoes, paintings, tapestries and engravings. Often the works were by itinerant church painters but just as often the subject was taken on by known artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Bernt Notke and, perhaps most famously, Hans Holbein the younger. The first time he took on the subject around 1521 in a pen and wash drawing of a scabbard for a dagger. He was to revisit the subject twice in the next three years with his Great Dance of Death (1522) and his Dance of Death Alphabet (1524). The original woodblocks were created by Hans Lützelburger and became the source material for books in both Catholic and Protestant countries. They were also to serve as reference for artists for the next four hundred years. Countless copies and variations were created using woodblocks, copperplate engraving, ink and oil into our own century.
Wer war der Tor, wer des Weise[r],
Wer der Bettler oder Kaiser?
Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich.
Who was the fool, who the wise
who the beggar or the Emperor?
Whether rich or poor, all are equal in deathText from a Totentanz
Back in 2012 I created a video using a 20th century setting of an old English (16th century or earlier) dirge meant to be sung at wakes to accompany the dead on their dance with Death to the gates of Purgatory. The strange juxtaposition of Buffy Stainte Marie singing Benjamin Britten‘s setting of the Lyke-Wake Dirge fascinated me when I first bought the album back in 1967 and 47 years later still has the power to give me chills.
‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.Hamlet: Act 3William Shakespeare