Friday, 3 August 2012

Dancing in the Dark

Considereth this, ye folkes that been wyse,
And it emprinteth in your memoriall,
Like thensample which that at Parise
I fonde depict ones vppon a wal
John Lydgate Prologue - The Daunce of Machabree c.1426

                       Saints Innocents Cemetery (Cimetière des Saints-Innocents) was the oldest and largest cemetery in Paris, originally a site of individual tombs, but when the demand for burials inside the city exceeded the space available in the cemetery, mass grave pits, each holding about 1,500 bodies, became the normal means of internment. Charnel houses were built around the cemetery walls, in which the bones of the dead were stacked. 

Saints Innocents Cemetery c.1550

On the south side back wall, in an arcade below the charniers, was painted one of the earliest pictorial depictions of the Dance of Death (danse macabre). It depicted a chain of thirty figures, from Pope and Emperor down to the humbler members of society, linked hand in hand, the living with the dead, a stately dance with Death mocking the sinners as he summons them to their graves. John Lydgate, the English monk and poet, was in Paris in 1426, just as the mural was being completed, and on his return home to Bury St Edmunds he published an interpretation of the text that accompanied the French painting. 

Death and the Pope - John Lydgate The Daunce of Machabree 

This obviously made quite an impression, for in 1430 the town clerk John Carpenter (a close friend of Lord Mayor Richard ‘Dick’ Whittington) commissioned ‘at great expense’ a series of painting of the Dance of Death to be accompanied by Lydgate’s poem and placed in the cloister of old St Paul’s Cathedral (these were painted on wood panels rather than onto the cloister walls – they were destroyed when the cloister was demolished in 1549, on the orders of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset). The fashion for the Dance programme, often known as Daunce of Poulys [Dance of (St) Paul’s], spread throughout the land. It is thought that this popularity was a reaction to the various famines, blights and plagues that ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages, with the prospect of an unexpected death was an ever-present fact of life. These warnings of the transience and fragility of mortality, memento mori, served as a reminder that death might come at any time, and that one should always be prepared to, quite literally, meet one’s maker. The danse was also a reminder that death was no respecter of rank, occasion or circumstance, and would come to all in time, whether Pope, Emperor, King, man, woman or child. 

Hans Holbein - Les Simulachres Lyon 1538

Developments in woodblock printing and the invention of Gutenberg’s press made the theme a popular subject for graphic artists, and the series produced by Hans Holbein the Younger in the 1520s is perhaps the finest example of the genre, (with the 1538 volume published in Lyons under the title Les simulachres et historiees faces de la mort, autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginees perhaps the finest of all). 

Hans Holbein - Dagger handle and hilt

Holbein also made a beautiful dagger handle and hilt of the same design. Each of Holbien’s images is a miniature masterpiece, perfectly composed and executed, managing to imbue each tableau with emotion, wit and individuality. The skeleton Death comes for each of his victims, sometimes expected, more often not, sometimes with a musical instrument to charm them away, sometimes simply leading them quietly to their fate, sometimes wrestling them violently to their end. Holbein uses his skill to highlight each individual portrayed, with immense detail and elaboration in the pictures of the Pope, Emperor and King adding majestic dignity to their situation, and in contrast simpler, stripped down outdoor settings for the more human stories. Each picture tells its own story, but Holbein’s intent is not moralistic or didactic; there is humour and satire, but it does not detract from or dominate the overall message – that Death is inevitable, and all are equal in the grave. Death, accompanied by devils, slips a comforting arm around the Pope. He wrests the crown from the head of the Emperor and points the Empress to her pit; he plucks a Preacher from his pulpit, and manhandles a miserable Monk away from his moneybox. 

Some of my favourites are:  

Han Holbein - The Nun

The Nun, who kneels before her altar, clutching her rosary beads, but turns away from her prayers to smile demurely at her lover, who sits on her bed and plucks at a lute. This youth is clad in the fashion of the day, with his slashed doublet and hose, and soft hat, and accompanies himself as he sings his love song to the distracted nun. Her cell is richly decorated, with heavy curtains hanging around the bed, glazed windows and an elaborate altarpiece with carved finials, small devotional statues and a pair of candlesticks (wax candles were a luxury). The couple have not seen Death’s overturned hourglass lying on the floor in the corner, nor do they see Death himself, disguised as an old woman, delicately extending his hand to snuff out the candle (and the life) of the nun. 

Hans Holbein - The Child

The Child; in a tumbledown hovel a mother stirs at the family mess steaming on the fire set in the floor. There are holes in the walls and the roof, and bare, rough beams in what looks more like a byre than a home, (contrast this to the riches of the nun). Death is leading an infant out through the doorway by its pudgy hand, almost with a spring in his step. The child looks back, stretching out an arm to its mother in what could be mistaken for a good-bye wave. She has not had time to stop stirring the pot, but raises her hand to her brow in anguish. In a magnificent economy of line, Holbein delineates her pain and incomprehension in all its stark intensity. 

Hans Holbein - The Old Man

The Old Man; inside the cemetery walls, an ancient man shambles towards an open grave, leaning heavily on his stick on one hand and supported on the other by a skeletal dulcimer-playing Death. The hour-glass stands on the cemetery wall, upright; its sands have finally run through. This is not an unexpected taking, time has runs its true and measured course. The Old Man turns his bowed head towards Death, almost in thankful recognition, and Death, delicately holding his arm, inclines a skull almost in tender pity. Death comes to all; sometimes, as with the Child, in untimely haste - sometimes, as here, in his own good time.

Just as an aside, when it was decided that the Saints Innocents Cemetery was full, in the 1760s, it was decided to move the bones of the dead into the disused mines below Paris – the famous catacombs. When the mass graves were opened, they were found to contain not bones but tons and tons of fat. Bodies need oxygen to decompose, but starved of it, the soft tissues and the very bones themselves will eventually turn into margaric acid. The grave pits were up to 60 feet deep and full of the stuff. It was turned over to the fat boilers and chandlers, who converted it into soap and candles! The inhabitants of Paris who had primarily buried their ancestors were now presented with a second chance to cremate them, in a weird sort of a way.

More dancing with Death tomorrow.

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