It ends with the dance of death

If we can say that human life begins at the origin, we can equally say that it ends with the dance of death.

In the chapter dedicated to the skeleton in Este cuerpo es humano · This Body is Human, Grassa Toro writes:

“There are two kinds of skeletons: living skeletons and dead ones. A dead skeleton is always laughing and when we try to stand it up, it looks as if it wants to dance. But that’s not true. It’s just that it has nothing to lean on and it becomes disjointed. Dead skeletons have been used throughout history as a way to scare us, to paint paintings, to remind us that vanity is disconcerting, and to give us an idea what a live skeleton looks like, because we never see a live skeleton.”

While collecting material to make the images for the book and to write this post, I found it interesting to see how despite the underlying taboos of talking about death, so many cultures share a pictorial identity of representing it. It seems poking fun at our mortality is a very common way of facing it.

This idea of personifying death as a dancing skeleton is found throughout history, in most cultures and eras.

The image below is attributed to the Persian physician, astronomer and thinker Avicenna (also known as Ibn Sina, 980-1037). His written work included the books: The Canon of Medicine and The Book of Healing.  Source: Anatomía Rehabilitación y medicina física

 

Coloured plate of a human skeleton, included in one of Avicenna’s books.

The formal idea of the death dance or the Danse Macabre, dates back to the Late middle ages as an artistic genre of allegory of the on the universality of death. I came across this website which has a wonderful source of images from the period, such as the one below. Unfortunately, the site does not include the information about each piece, so I have no reference as to the artist, title or date.

 

If anyone has the information to this image, please email me at karishma.chugani@gmail.com

 

The Three Living and the Three Dead is a moral story from the 14th century in which three figures, often aristocratic and flaunting their vitality, meet three corpses who remind them about the inevitability of death. The numerous variations of this story and their accompanying illustrations provide a stark contrast between the beauty of the living and the worm-eaten corpses of the deceased. Moral messages about the importance of living a virtuous life on Earth are typical amongst Psalters and Book of Hours. Source: British Library.

 

This image illustrates a version of Ars Morendi (The Art of Dying), a series of related texts from 1415 and 1450 which act as instruction manuals to the protocols of dying well.

 

Marseille – BM – ms. 0089, f. 063. Ars moriendi. France, late 15th century

 

The Bardo Thödol (Tibetan: བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལ), Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State by Karma Lingpa (1326–1386) is known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The Tibetan text describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death, in the bardo, the interval between death and the next rebirth. The text also includes chapters on the signs of death and rituals to undertake when death is closing in or has taken place.

 

Colour plate from Bardo Thödol (Tibetan book of death)

 

The next image is included in a book of anatomical studies by John Banister, a member of the Company of Barber Surgeons, who were licensed by Henry VIII in 1540 to anatomise the bodies of four criminals a year.
Banister joined the Company in 1572 and soon became their Lecturer in Anatomy. He has been called ‘the turnkey who released anatomy [in England] from its mediaeval bondage into the daylight of the Renaissance’ (Buckland-Wright 1985). Source: University of Glasgow.

 

Painting commissioned by John Banister Ca 1580, table 3

 

In Japan, the artist Kawanabe Kyosai painted scrolls such as this one, which depicts a skeleton seated and playing shamisen while other skeletons, some with bamboo swords at their sides, others with towels bound around their foreheads, are enjoying music and dancing. Source: The British Museum.

 

Kawanabe Kyosai (1831 – 1889) – Skeletons dancing – Painting on silk, hanging scroll

 

Also from Japan, between 1603-1868, during the Edo period, medical illustrations depicting the human skeleton seemed to have a minimalism and humour to them.

 

Medical illustration of the human skeleton, Japan. Artist unknown.

 

Memento mori (Latin: “remember that you have to die”) is the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. This image belongs to a collection from the Southern German School of painting from the 18th century.

 

Artist unknown.

 

Jumping straight from there to more contemporary references, Marcel Dzama’s video installation Death Disco Dance is a wonderful version of the above mentioned pieces.
The video is accompanied by a series of drawings, studies and three-dimensional paper-theatre models.

 

The video is accompanied by a series of drawings, studies and three-dimensional paper-theatre models.

 

These final images are the my own laughs and giggles at death; the illustrations for the chapters about cranium and the skeleton in the book This Body is Human.

 

 

Song of the day

Around the World – Daft Punk