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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.

A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.

VOL. III. - MARCH, 1859. - NO. XVII.








HOLBEIN AND THE DANCE OF DEATH.


At the northwest corner of Switzerland, just on the turn of the Rhine
from its westward course between Germany and Switzerland, to run
northward between Germany and France, stands the old town of Bâle. It is
nominally Swiss; but its situation on the borders of three countries,
and almost in them all, has given to the place itself and to its
inhabitants a somewhat heterogeneous air. "It looks," says one
traveller, "like a stranger lately arrived in a new colony, who,
although he may have copied the dress and the manner of those with whom
he has come to reside, wears still too much of his old costume to pass
for a native, and too little to be received as a stranger." Perhaps we
may get a better idea of the mixed nationality of the place by imagining
a Swiss who speaks French with a German accent.

Bâle is an ancient city; though Rome was bending under the weight of
more than a thousand years when the Emperor Valentinian built at this
angle of the river a fortress which was called the Basilia. Houses soon
began to cluster round it upon the ruins of an old Helvetian town, and
thus Basel or Bâle obtained its existence and its name. Bâle suffered
many calamities. War, pestilence, and earthquake alternately made it
desolate. Whether we must enumerate among its misfortunes a Grand
Ecclesiastical Council which assembled there in 1431, and sat for
seventeen years, deposing one infallible Pope, and making another
equally infallible, let theological disputants decide. But the
assembling of this Council was of some service to us; for its Secretary,
Aeneas Sylvius, (who, like the saucy little _prima donna_, was one of
the noble and powerful Italian family, the Piccolomini, and afterward,
as Pope Pius II., wore the triple crown which St. Peter did not wear,)
in his Latin dedication of a history of the transactions of that body
to the Cardinal St. Angeli, has left a description of Bâle as it was in
1436.

After telling us that the town is situated upon that "excellent river,
the Rhine, which divides it into two parts, called Great Bâle and Little
Bâle, and that these are connected by a bridge which the river rising
from its bed sometimes carries off," he, naturally enough for an
ecclesiastic and a future Pope, goes on to say, that in Great Bâle,
which is far more beautiful and magnificent than Little Bâle, there are
handsome and commodious churches; and he naively adds, that, "_although_
these are not adorned with marble, and are built of common stone, they
are much frequented by the people." The women of Bâle, following the
devotional instincts of their sex, were the most assiduous attendants
upon these churches; and they consoled themselves for the absence of
marble, which the good Aeneas Sylvius seems to imply would partly have
excused them for staying away, by an arrangement in itself as odd as in
Roman Catholic places of worship - to their honor - it is, and ever was,
unusual. Each of them performed her devotions in a kind of inclosed
bench or solitary pew. By most of these the occupant was concealed
only to the waist when she stood up at the reading of the Gospel; some
allowed only their heads to appear; and others of the fair owners were
at once so devout, so cruel, and so self-denying as to shut out the
eyes of the world entirely and at all times. But instances of this
remorseless mortification of the flesh, seem to have been exceedingly
rare. Queer enough these structures were, and sufficiently gratifying
to the pride and provocative of the envy which the beauties of Bâle
(avowedly) went to churches in which there was no marble to mortify. For
they were of different heights, according to the rank of the occupant.
A simple burgher's wife took but a step toward heaven when she went to
pray; a magistrate's of the lower house, we must suppose, took two; a
magistrate's of the upper house, three; a lady, four; a baroness, five;
a countess, six; and what a duchess, if one ever appeared there, did to
maintain her dignity in the eyes of God and man, unless she mounted into
the pulpit, it is quite impossible to conjecture. Aeneas Sylvius gives
it as his opinion that these things were used as a protection against
the cold, which to his Italian blood seemed very great. But that notion
was surely instilled into the courtly churchman by some fair, demure
Bâloise; for had it been well-founded, the sentry-boxes would have risen
and fallen with the thermometer, and not with the rank of the occupant.

The walls of the churches were hung around with the emblazoned shields
of knights and noblemen, and the roofs were richly painted in various
colors, and glowed with splendor when the rays of the sun fell upon
them. Storks built their nests upon these roofs, and hatched their young
there unmolested; for the Bâlois believed, that, if the birds were
disturbed, they would fire the houses.

The dwellings of men of any wealth or rank were very curiously planned,
elaborately ornamented, richly painted, and adorned with magnificent
tapestry. The tables were covered with vessels of wrought silver, in
which Sylvius confesses that the Bâlois surpassed even the skilful
and profuse Italians. Fountains, those sources of fantastic and
ever-changing beauty, were numerous, - so numerous, says our
afterward-to-be-infallible authority, that the town of Viterbo, in
Tuscany, had not so many, - and Viterbo was noted for its beauty, and for
being surrounded with the villas of wealthy Italians, who have always
used water freely in the way of fountains.

Bâle, although it then - four hundred and twenty years ago - acknowledged
the Emperor for its sovereign, was a free town, as it is now; that is,
it had no local lord to favor or oppress it at his pleasure, but was
governed by laws enacted by representatives of the people. The spirit of
a noble independence pervaded the little Canton of which it was and
is the capital. Though it was fortified, its stone defences were not
strong; but when Sylvius tells us that the Bâlois thought that the
strength of their city consisted in the union of its inhabitants, who
preferred death to loss of liberty, we see what stuff its men were made
of, and why the town was free.

Among its peculiarities, Bâle had no lawyers, - this happy and united
Bâle. The Bâlois did not trouble themselves about the Imperial law,
says Sylvius; but when disputes or accusations were brought before the
magistrates, they were decided according to custom and the equity of
each case. They were nevertheless inexorably severe in administering
justice. A criminal could not be saved either by gold, or by
intercession, or by the authority and influence of his family. He
who was guilty must be punished; and the punishments were terrible.
Criminals were banished, hung, beheaded, broken on the wheel, drowned in
the Rhine, (a bad use to which to put that "excellent river,") left to
starve on a gradually diminished supply of bread and water. To compel
confessions, tortures inconceivably horrible were used, to which the
alternative of death would have been a boon; and yet there were not
wanting those among the Bâlois who would endure these torments rather
than utter their own condemnation.

They were devoted to religion, and held in great reverence the pictures
and images of the Saints; but not on account of any admiration of the
skill of painter or sculptor; for they cared little for the arts, and
were so ignorant of literature that "no one of them had ever heard of
Cicero or of any other orator."

The men of Bâle were of noble presence, and dressed well, although they
avoided magnificence. Only those of knightly rank wore purple; the
wealthy burghers confined themselves to black velvet; but their wives,
on fête-days, blazed in splendid silk and satin and jewels. The boys
went with naked feet, and, adds the reverend divine, the women wore upon
their white legs only shoes. There was no distinction of age by costume,
among the women, - a very great singularity in those days, when every
stage and rank of life was marked by some peculiar style of dress; but
in Bâle the face alone distinguished the young girl from the matron
of mature years. It may, however, be doubted by some, whether this is
peculiar to the town of Bâle or to the time of Sylvius. The men were
addicted to voluptuous pleasures; they lived sumptuously, and passed a
long time at table. In the words of our churchman, "They were too much
devoted to Father Bacchus and Dame Venus," - faults which they deemed
venial. But he adds, that they were jealous of their honor, and held to
what they promised; they would rather be upright than merely seem to be
so. Though provident, they were content, unless very poor.

Another peculiarity of Bâle: its clocks were one hour ahead of all
others, and so continued at least till the middle of the last century.
This of course depended on no difference of time; it was merely that
when, for instance, at mid-day, the clocks of neighboring towns struck
twelve, the clocks of Bâle struck one. The origin of this seeming effort
to hasten him who usually moves rapidly enough for us all is lost in
obscurity.

And now why is it that, we have gone back four hundred years and more,
to linger thus long with the Secretary of the Great Ecclesiastical
Council of Bâle, in that quaint and queer old town, with its half
French, half German look, its grand, grotesque old churches, hung round
with knightly shields and filled with women, each in a pulpit of her
own, its stork-crowned roofs, its houses blazing with wrought gold and
silver, its threescore fountains, and the magnificence in which, without
a court, it rivalled the richest capitals of Italy, its noble-spirited
and pleasure-loving, but simple-minded and unlearned burghers, its
white-limbed beauties, and its deceitful clocks? It is not because that
town is now one of the principal ribbon-factories of the world, and
exports to this country alone over $1,200,000 worth yearly; although
some fair readers may suppose that an all-sufficient reason, - and some
of their admirers and protectors, too, for that matter. Think of it!
nearly one million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars' worth of
ribbons coming to us every year from a single town in Switzerland! The
statement is enough to carry horror and dismay to the heart and the
pocket of every father and brother, and above all, of every husband,
actual or possible, who hears of it. It is a godsend to the
protectionists, who might reëdify their party on the basis of a
prohibitory tariff against ribbons. If they were successful, their
success would be brilliant; for if our fair tyrants could not get
ribbons - those necessaries of life - from Bâle in Switzerland, they
would tease and coax us to build them a Bâle in America; and we should
do it.

We have gone back to the old Bâle of four hundred and twenty years ago,
because there, and not long after that time, - about 1498, - according
to general belief, Hans Holbein was born; because these were the
surroundings under the influence of which he grew to manhood; and
because there, about sixty years before his birth, a Dance of Death was
painted, the most ancient and important of which we have any remaining
memorial. This Dance was painted upon the wall of the churchyard of the
Dominican Convent in Great Bâle, by order of the very Ecclesiastical
Council of which our Aeneas Sylvius was Secretary, and in commemoration
of a plague which visited the town during the sitting of that Council,
and carried off many of its members.

What is a Dance of Death? and why should Death be painted dancing?
Some readers may think of it as a frantic revel of grim skeletons, or
perhaps - like me in my boyish musings - imagine nameless shapes with
Death and Hell gleaming in their faces, each clasping a mortal beguiled
to its embrace, all flitting and floating round and round to unearthly
music, and gradually receding through vast mysterious gloom till they
are lost in its horrible obscurity.

But neither of these notions is near the truth. The Dance of Death is
not a revel, and in it Death does not dance at all. A Dance of Death, or
a Dance Macabre, as it was called, is a succession of isolated pictures,
all informed with the same motive, it is true, but each independent of
the others, and consisting of a group, generally of but two figures, one
of which is the representative of Death. The second always represents
a class; and in this figure every rank, from the very highest to the
lowest, finds its type. The number of these groups or pictures varies
considerably in the different dances, according to the caprice of the
artist, or, perhaps, to the expense of his time and labor which he
thought warranted by the payment he was to receive. But all express,
with sufficient fulness, the idea that Death is the common lot of
humanity, and that he enters with impartial feet the palace and the
cottage, neither pitying youth nor respecting age, and waiting no
convenient season.

The figure of Death in these strange religious works of Art, - for they
were as purely religious in their origin as the Holy Families and
Madonnas of the same and a subsequent period, - this figure of Death is
not always a skeleton. It is so in but one of the forty groups in the
Dance at Bâle, which was the germ of Holbein's, and which, indeed, until
very recently, was attributed to him, although it was painted more
than half a century before he was born. It is generally assumed that a
skeleton has always been the representative of Death, but erroneously;
for, in fact, Holbein was the first to fix upon a mere skeleton for the
embodiment of that idea.

The Hebrew Scriptures, which furnish us with the earliest extant
allusion to Death as a personage, designate him as an angel or messenger
of God, - as, for instance, in the record of the destruction of the
Assyrian host in the Second Book of Kings (xix. 35). The ancient
Egyptians, too, in whose strange system of symbolism may be found the
germ, at least, of most of the types used in the religion and the arts
of more modern nations, had no representation of Death as an individual
agent. They expressed the extinction of life very naturally and simply
by the figure of a mummy. Such a figure it was their custom to pass
round among the guests at their feasts; and the Greeks and Romans
imitated them, with slight modifications, in the form of the image and
the manner of the ceremony. Some scholars have found in this custom a
deep moral and religious significance, akin to that which certainly
attached to the custom of placing a slave in the chariot of a Roman
conquering general to say to him at intervals, as his triumphal
procession moved with pomp and splendor through the swarming streets,
"Remember that thou art a man." But this is too subtile a conjecture.
The ceremony was but a silent way of saying, "Let us eat and drink, for
to-morrow we die," which, as Paul's solemn irony makes but too plain,
must be the philosophy of life to those who believe that the dead rise
not, which was the case with the Egyptians and the Greeks, and the
Hebrews also. An old French epitaph expresses to the full this
philosophy: -

"Ce que j'ai mangé,
Ce que j'ai bu,
Ce que j'ai dissipé,
Je l'ai maintenant avec moi.
Ce que j'ai laissé,
Je l'ai perdu,"

What I ate,
What I drank,
What I dissipated,
I have with me.
That which I left
I lost.

The figure of the sad youth leaning upon an inverted torch, in which
the Greeks embodied their idea of Death, is familiar to all who have
examined ancient Art. The Etruscan Death was a female, with wings upon
the shoulders, head, and feet, hideous countenance, terrible fangs and
talons, and a black skin. No example of the form attributed to him by
the early Christians has come down to us, that I can discover; but we
know that they, as well as the later Hebrews, considered Death as the
emissary of the Evil One, if not identical with him, and called him
impious, unholy. It was in the Dark Ages, that the figure of a dead body
or a skull was first used as a symbol of Death; but even then its office
appears to have been purely symbolic, and not representative; - that is,
these figures served to remind men of their mortality, or to mark a
place of sepulture, and were not the embodiment of an idea, not the
creation of a personage, - Death. It is not until the thirteenth or
fourteenth century that we find this embodiment clearly defined and
generally recognized; and even then the figure used was not a skeleton,
but a cadaverous and emaciated body.

Among the remains of Greek and Roman Art, only two groups are known in
which a skeleton appears; and it is remarkable that in both of these the
skeletons are dancing. In one group of three, the middle figure is a
female. Its comparative breadth at the shoulders and narrowness at the
hips make at first a contrary impression; but the position of the body
and limbs is, oddly enough, too like that of a female dancer of the
modern French school to leave the question in more than a moment's
doubt. Thus the artists who did not embody their idea of death in a
skeleton were the first to conceive and execute a real Dance of Death.
In both the groups referred to, the motive is manifestly comic; and
neither of them has any similarity to the Dances of Death of which
Holbein's has become the grand representative. These had their origin,
we can hardly tell with certainty how, or when, or where; although the
subject has enlisted the investigating labors of such accomplished
scholars and profound antiquaries as Douce and Ottley in England,
and Peignot and Langlois in France. But a story with which they are
intimately connected, even if it is not their germ, has been discovered;
ancient customs which must have aided in their development are familiar
to all investigators of ancient manners, and especially of ancient
amusements; and the motives which inform them all, and the moral
condition of Christendom of which they were the result, are plain
enough.

We have seen before, that this Dance consisted of several groups of two
or more figures, one of which was always Death in the act of claiming a
victim; and for the clear comprehension of what follows, it is necessary
to anticipate a little, and remark, that there is no doubt that the
Dance was first represented by living performers. Strange as this seems
to us, it was but in keeping with the spirit of the time, which we call,
perhaps with some presumption, the Dark Ages.

The story which is probably the germ of this Dance was called _Les Trois
Morts et les Trois Vifs_, - "The Three Dead and the Three Living." It is
of indefinable antiquity and uncertain origin. It is said, that three
noble youths, as they returned from hunting, were met in the gloom of
the forest by three hideous spectres, in the form of decaying human
corpses; and that, as they stood rooted to the ground by this appalling
sight, the figures addressed them solemnly upon the vanity of worldly
grandeur and pleasure, and admonished them, that, although in the heyday
of youth, they must soon become as they (the spectres) were. This story,
or _dit_, "saying," as it was called in French, was exceedingly popular
through-out Europe five or six hundred years ago. It is found in the
language of every Christian nation of the period, and, extended by means
of accessory incidents and much moralizing, is made to cover several
pages in more than one old illuminated manuscript. In the Arundel MSS.,
in England, there is one of the many versions of the legend written
in French so old that it is quite as difficult for Frenchmen as for
Englishmen to read it. But over an illuminated picture of the incident,
in which three kings are shown meeting the three skeletons, are these
lines in English, as old, but less obsolete: -

_Over the Kings_.

"Ich am afert
Lo whet ich see
Methinketh hit be develes thre."

_Over the Skeletons_.

"Ich wes wel fair
Such schel tou be
For Godes love be wer by me."

In these rude lines is the whole moral of the legend, and of the Dance
of Death which grew out of it. That growth was simple, gradual, and
natural. In the versions and in the pictorial representations of the
legend there soon began to be much variety in the persons who met the
spectres. At first three noble youths, they became three kings, three
noble ladies, a king, a queen, and their son or daughter, and so
on, - the rank of the persons, however, being always high. For, as we
shall have occasion to notice hereafter more particularly, the mystery
of the Dance had a democratic as well as a religious significance; and
it served to bring to mind, not only the irresistible nature of Death's
summons, but the real equality of all men; and this it did in a manner
to which those of high condition could not object.

The legend was made the subject of a fresco, painted about 1350, by the
eminent Italian painter and architect, Orcagna, upon the walls of the
Campo Santo at Pisa, - which some readers may be glad to be reminded was
a cemetery, so called because it was covered with earth brought from
the Holy Land. It is remarkable, however, that in this work the artist
embodied Death not in the form commonly used in his day, but in the old
Etruscan figure before mentioned. Orcagna's Death is a female, winged
like a bat, and with terrible claws. Armed with a scythe, she swoops
down upon the earth and reaps a promiscuous harvest of popes, emperors,
kings, queens, churchmen, and noblemen. In the rude manner of the time,
Orcagna has divided his picture into compartments. In one of these we
see St. Macarius, one of the first Christian hermits, an Egyptian,
sitting at the foot of a mountain; before him are three kings, who have
returned from the chase accompanied by a gay train of attendants. The
Saint calls the attention of the kings to three sepulchres in which lie
the bodies of three other kings, one of which is much decomposed. The
three living kings are struck with horror; but the painter has much
diminished the moral effect of his work, for this century, at least, by
making one of them hold his nose; - which is regarded by Mr. Ruskin as
an evidence of Orcagna's devotion to the truth; but in this case that
brilliant writer, but most unsafe critical guide, commits an error of a
kind not uncommon with him. The representation of so homely an action,
in such a composition, merely shows that the painter had not arrived at
a just appreciation of the relative value of the actual, - and that he
failed to see that by introducing this unessential incident he diverted
attention from his higher purpose, dragged his picture from a moral to
a material plane, and went at a bound far over the narrow limit between
the horrible and the ludicrous.

St. Macarius is frequently introduced in the pictures of this subject;
and some antiquaries suppose that hence the Dance of Death derived the
name, Dance Macabre, by which it used to be generally known. Others
derive it from the Arabic _mac-bourah_, - a cemetery. Neither derivation
is improbable; but it is of little consequence to us which is correct.

It may seem strange that such a legend as this of "The Three Dead and
the Three Living," with such a moral, should become the origin of a
dance. But we should remember that in many countries dancing has been a
religious ceremony. It was so with the Greeks and Romans, and also with
the Hebrews, among whom, however, saltatory worship seems, on most
occasions, to have been performed spontaneously, and by volunteers. All
will remember the case of Miriam, who thus danced to the sound of her
timbrel after the passage of the Red Sea; and who that has read it can
forget the account of the dance which King David executed before the
ark, dancing with all his might, and girded only with a linen ephod?
Dancing has always seemed to us to be an essentially ridiculous
transaction, - for a man, at least; and we confess that we sympathize
with David's wife, Michal, who, seeing this extraordinary _pas seul_
from her window, "despised David in her heart," and treated him to a
little conjugal irony when he came home. What would the lovely Eugénie
have thought, if, after the fall of Sebastopol, she had seen his
Majesty, the Emperor of the French, "cutting it down," in broad
daylight, before the towers of Notre Dame, girded only with a linen


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 03, No. 17, March, 1859 → online text (page 1 of 21)