No music is being played, but a dance is taking place. The figure undulating to the mystical sound of it’s own making is not living. Its skin is like the weathered remains of a discarded scrap of leather from a boot makers shop. The tattered leather sucks into the bones that protrude like they would from an emaciated, starving child. The whole scene is odd, but what makes it even more odd is the facial expression. It’s odd because there isn’t much of a face. It’s more like a skull, shrink-wrapped in that shabby leather. And yet, there is a wicked looking smile of triumph. The creature is stark naked, except for a white sheet being used almost like a feather boa at a burlesque show.
There is a great contrast in this scene. There are different types of people standing next to these creatures. There is a king, a nobleman, a noblewoman, a worker, and a peasant. They are dressed, and although they are obviously depicted in attire from the middle ages, they look normal. And weaving in and out among these normal looking humans are these vile creatures, gyrating to some unheard sound of victory.
There are words spoken. One creature speaks to the Emperor, “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out, scepter and crown are worthless here, I’ve taken you by the hand, for you must come to my dance.” It’s speaks without fear, with finality, and gravity. Its words are heavy and carry a tone of glee.
How could something so grotesque be smiling? What kind of God-forsaken creature would be engaged in such a demonic looking dance?
It’s not a creature, it’s not a figure, it is Death—personified.
The Danse Macabre
That was a feeble attempt to describe an incredible piece of art called the Danse Macabre. I went into this old church called the Church of St. Nicholas in Tallin. The church is now a museum and houses some incredible artwork that dates from the Middle Ages. One of the biggest attractions is this incredible mural painting called the Danse Macbre.
A German painter and sculptor, named Bernt Notke, produced this mural in 1425. The mural was moved around over the years, and it didn’t survive intact after WWII. The Church of St. Nicholas is the final resting place for this mural.
It is a fascinating piece of medieval art. It is huge. This isn’t a painting you could hang in your living room. It is probably 50 feet long and 10 feet high. The mural is an allegory that depicts the universality of death regardless of one’s station in life. In the mural, death is personified in animated skeletal looking zombies who are dancing. In between death are people. The people start off from the most important of adults and then progress downward all the way to a child. In between each person is death in the middle of a dance.
When you enter the museum, the natural flow of traffic leads you to the Danse Macabre last. So, I made my way around the room looking at the iconographic artwork, the medieval tombstones and caskets (the rich could purchase a place to be buried inside the church), the blasphemous depiction of God the Father, numerous crucifixes, and then the mural. As in most museums, there were some nice displays explaining the artwork. I was intrigued by this piece of art. It caught my attention as a depiction of an incredibly important truism. As Maximus says in the movie Gladiator, “death smiles at us all”. But, instead of smiling back we are faced with the truth that death is dancing the dance of victory.
The other striking reminder is that death dances regardless of who you are. It reaches out to the most prominent king all the way down to the lowliest peasant. Old, and young alike must face the reality of death. One cannot buy themselves out of the dance of death, or rule their way out of the way of death, or work oneself beyond the invitation of death. The universal reach of death is something that cannot be escaped by who we are.
Yes, the mural is grim, dark, and “macabre”. But, it is also true. Death is coming for us all.
There were other people in the museum that day. I was reflecting on the important truth depicted in that painting. I am not sure what Mr. Notke’s intent was, but it seems to ignite a confrontation with our own mortality. Humanity is mortal. We will die. No matter who we are, or what our station in life, or what our level of success or failure – death is coming for us. There is nothing we can do about that. I believe that contemplating that reality is good – because it can drive us to the One solution to that problem.
About 12 feet back from the mural is a series of benches. Sitting on these benches was a young couple. A guy and his girlfriend, probably in the early twenties, in a full face lock – making out. What a great date! “Let’s go to the museum today and sit in front of death personified and swap spit.”
How ironic, and yet representative of most people’s awareness of mortality. They ignore it. They get more wrapped up in their immediate pursuits and pleasures than they do in reality and truth. I wonder if Notke saw the same thing in his day, and painted this mural in an attempt to awaken people to the inevitability of the dance of death.
As I noted earlier, this mural is incomplete. There is no conclusion. In my research I was unable to find if there even is a conclusion. Maybe Mr. Notke didn’t have one. The mural is just supposed to make us aware of our mortality. But, given the time it was painted, and that it is incomplete, I wonder if there is some type of conclusion.
Since there isn’t one that is known, I will give my conclusion. Everyone will meet with death. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have or haven’t done – death awaits us all. The reason for our mortality is because of sin. “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) There is nothing we can do to get ourselves out of this payment. We deserve death, both temporal and eternal, for violating the standards of an infinitely holy God. So God, in His great love, did something for us. He sent His Son, Jesus, who became man, lived a sinless life, and died on the cross taking the punishment for our sin. He gave His life’s blood to pay for our sin. He danced with death because He loved us. But, death could not hold Him. He turned the tables around. He brought death to death. He rose from the dead and dances the dance of life-- life eternal. It is only when we turn to the Victorious Risen Savior, that we can be rescued from our own Danse Macabre.
That is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have an important task. To interrupt people while they are making out, to show them the reality of death and the solution in Jesus Christ alone. That is the only way that they can be rescued from their own date with the Danse Macabre.
Back here in our culture we’ve got a tough mission. We have to reach people with the gospel of Christ while they are busy making out in front of death. They are wrapped up in all kinds of things that distract them from the reality of mortality and the only answer is found in Christ alone.
(This is a picture of a portion of the mural in St. Nicholas Church Museum)
(In this pic you can see the museum layout a bit better. The benches that I mention are not in this pic, and I did NOT take this picture -- you are not supposed to take pictures in the museum, a rule which I followed most of the time)
For More info, you can check out these sights.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danse_Macabre (Wikipedia page on mural)
http://www.dodedans.com/Eest.htm (Danse Macabre Info)
http://www.ekm.ee/eng/niguliste.php?id=137 (Nigueliste Museum: St. Nicholas Church)