What do we think when we see an image of skull & bones today? How about a stylized picture of a human skeleton? Although it does depend on the context, we probably don’t think about it too much and place it into the drawer with other “gothic” or “dark” pop imagery. These images, such as this skeleton mosaic art, are so common today that we don’t really stop and consider what they actually convey and their history is much deeper, much more interesting and much more optimistic than the one we might imagine.
Artistic skeleton mosaics have their roots in the medieval allegory called the Dance of Death or originally, Danse Macabre. During the Middle Ages, life was very different. Undeveloped medicine, awful hygiene, and constant wars brought many diseases while the mortality rate of the European population grew exponentially. Peaking around the middle of the 14th century, the Great Plague peaked killed about half of all people in the old continent, leaving behind fear and devastation. Short life span and poor living conditions kept the idea of death close to the people, while the Christian doctrine kept them believing in a better afterlife.
The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.
The fact that death is imminent and an unknown creative mind gave birth to a new type of image – in which a spirited skeleton would follow a human being to his grave. Rooted in medieval poetry and literature, the scene depicts skeletons in an almost humorous fashion, as if they were dancing, sometimes even playing instruments, while humans walk in a row after each bony creature, without resisting, all equal – from a peasant to a bishop and a king. This is a visual representation of Death taking everyone to their grave, meant to remind us that everyone is mortal, regarding their status – a fact we seem to have forgotten today.
Historically, the first image of the Danse Macabre we know of dates back to 1424. It was a fresco painted in the arcade of the charnel house in the Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris. A parade of male figures was accompanied by dancing skeletons in a long line, with an inscription stating their position in life. Both the graveyard and the ossuary in question are long gone, but the image was preserved in an edition of woodcut prints created in 1485. The creator of the prints was Guyot Marchant, who continued to print similar images involving women and other characters after his original edition became popular. So, we have him to thank for this imagery we still very much use today.
The placement of the original image was deliberate and logical. Not only did it cover the part of the home of human bones, but it was also positioned in a very public and frequented place, which a medieval cemetery would have been, to be seen by as many people as possible. Its function as a reminder of their own temporality on this Earth was achieved and the people would be reminded to rejoice in this life, but also to be aware of the consequences involving the next. The humorous composition was meant to engage and warn – “Enjoy yourself! But beware of sin.” As the printed edition spread across France and Europe, so did the visual representation of the Danse Macabre skeleton mosaic and some of the most famous artists in history made their own versions of the topic.
Over the years, the Dance of Death gained and lost popularity, depending on the locale and the times, and the modern period welcomed it with a different eye. The distinctly Christian theme now became much broader, as a memento for every human to appreciate the short time they have on Earth. One of the first modern adaptations of the medieval allegory was the famous Disney cartoon from 1929, featuring a skeleton dance in which bones dance and play music on – more bones! Even though it seems naive and made for fun, this cartoon shows what happened to the idea of this representation – there are no humans involved and it’s meant to be told as a fun and scary story, something that may derive from the Romantic literature and neo-gothic period of the 19th century, a time preoccupied with horror.