The Dance of Death

By Ginny A. Roth

Skeletons Dance of Death

The Seventh Age of the World: The Image of Death, 1493 Book Illustration
National Library of Medicine #A013198

It’s that time of year when ghosts and goblins are out in droves, children in costume roam the streets at dusk on a noble quest for candy, and unsuspecting passersby fall victim to the random acts of mischief that plague so many on Halloween. It is not a night for the faint of heart.  You never know what you will experience; perhaps a candlelit jack-o-lantern will be the only light guiding you down a spooky, dark street, its devilish grin following every step you take. Even worse, you may follow the sounds of music and laughter, and stumble upon a band of skeletons rising from the dead to perform the Dance of Death, as depicted in this 15th century woodcut illustration, The Seventh Age of the World: The Image of Death from Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) written by Hartmann Schedel and illustrated by Michael Wolgemut in 1493.

This frighteningly festive image is captioned by a celebratory Latin verse which speaks of death as a friend:

“Nothing is better than Death, nor anything worse than an unfair Life,
O great Death, you are men’s eternal rest from labor,
You relax the yoke for the aged, God willing,
And remove the heavy fetters from the necks of the vanquished,
You lift exile and break open the doors of prison,
You rescue from indignities, assigning good things to the just by lots,
And you remain unmoved, implacable by any technique,
On that day preset from the beginning, all these things you command
the peaceful soul to bear, the end of its labors having been promised,
Without you the life of the suffering is a perennial prison.”

—This verse was adapted from Petrarch’s “Letter to Giovanni Colonna” (“Epistola ad Ioannem de Columna”). Translation by Michael North.

This best-selling secular book of the 15th century chronicles the history of the world in seven ages, from its creation to its final days. The ghoulish jamboree above, one of over 1,000 illustrations that appear in the book, certainly leaves a lasting, hair-raising impression.  So proceed with caution on this special day.  If you hear sounds of the undead doing the Dance of Death, turn the other way, and have a safe and Happy Halloween.

portrait of Ginny outside Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.