This morning I came across an article on the Catholic origins of Halloween. Reading it, I was reminded that the three days of Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 are a reminder of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory (not respectively), and the four last things. A post, therefore, on the danse macabre seems rather appropriate with Halloween so near.
The danse macabre (dance of death) is a literary and artistic theme with strong roots in the late Middle Ages. Its precise emergence is debatable (perhaps the 13th century, perhaps earlier), but it was a common and powerful theme throughout much of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. After waning during the Renaissance it re-emerged in the 19th century and continues in various depictions – including music and film – to our own day. The danse macabre is not only a reminder of our own death, but the death of all. In the eyes of death all are equal: one’s status, wealth, prestige, and talent is of no consequence where death is concerned.
The two images below, separated by centuries, depict the same scene: a dance coming to its end. In the first image a soul is being lowered into their grave, their hand not grasping anyone else’s they are clearly separated now from the dance. The second image, however, has some significant differences. The first is that the person is being lowered into a hole which is definitely not a grave. The look of pain on the shrouded face coupled with a lowering into darkness is indicative not merely of a grave, but entering into hell. The person’s hand is also still holding on to the hands of those still in the dance: they are not simply going to their own graves, but will also be joining this person in eternal pain and anguish.
While images such as the first depicted above and the one at the end of this post remind us of the universality of death, some images such as the one below remind us of this more poignantly as well as of death’s perceived untimeliness.
In Western society (or at the very least American), the reality of death is something people actively try to avoid confronting. We don’t want to think about death and even less do we really want to think about what may possibly come after death. We comfort ourselves with all kinds of sayings: “They’re in a better place.” “God will see how good I am.” “They’re angels now watching over us.” We automatically assume that when someone dies they go to Heaven. We come up with excuses not to visit someone’s grave such as their being everywhere. And, yet, we fool ourselves because there is something so different about the grave that we dare not go! Instead of praying for them, we only celebrate them. It’s amazing to me how many people with all their faults are suddenly saints upon their death. Parents pass this on to their little ones. Children are kept from funerals because it will “freak” them out. They are not brought to grave sides to remember loved ones who have passed. This inability to confront death is then passed on to the next generation. For all our avoidance, death is all around us. It is an inescapable part of our life. It is for that reason that images focusing on the individual such as the child typically (at least for me) elicit a more emotional response.
This is also true of some images that come from another theme derived from danse macabre: death and the maiden.
The anguish on the woman’s face is palpable with hands clasped, pleading not to go down into darkness. Death has no pity here. He is rough, tugging her hair and indicating with his other hand where she must go. We do not know her story; only the sad culmination of her life.
Here we see a very different picture. Again, we are presented with a woman in the prime of her youth. She is surprised, obviously not expecting that her time had come, and pulls the blanket to herself – a defensive and modest gesture in response to her vulnerability. Death here is not rough. The raised hand is a calming gesture, the wing stretched to embrace her. The lantern will light the way to we do not know where. In this painting all that matters is the immediate moment of encounter with death.
There are, unfortunately, depictions of this theme that are perversions of the mystery of death rather than being a rumination. One of the reasons for this is the separation of danse macabre and death of the maiden from the context in which they originated: Christian Europe. For the Christian, death is not the end; it is not finality. Rather, it is a comma in life as it was so wonderfully stated by Dr. Evelyn Ashford in Wit. This view of death is not avoidance. It is not an expression of the sickness of society as seen above. No, this comes from viewing death in its proper context: the victory of Jesus Christ, it’s unbinding. The context is the Resurrection. But the Death and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is not a free pass. It is not something to be taken for granted and to be presumed upon. We are called to partake in the Paschal Mystery. We are called to take up our cross and be crucified with our Lord. It is through the dying of self and to the world in Christ that our physical death will bring Life. Without this previous dying our physical death will bring eternal death.
The inability of our society to confront and live with the reality of death points to just how sick our society has become. If we do not embrace death, we cannot embrace life – either here on Earth or after our departure. Today, perhaps more than ever in this country, we need images like those above. We need them urgently. We need them in our churches, our homes, and our schools. We need them to confront us with the mystery of death and what happens after. We need them to remind us of our hope in the Resurrection, rather than thinking it is something owed to us. So on Halloween enjoy the danse macabre in its varied depictions. Remember the reality of Hell and the wages of sin, and look forward in hope to Heaven. On the following day joyously celebrate that hope with all saints.
And just for a bit of fun…