Bern Dance of Death
|Original location||Bern, on the wall of the Dominican monastery|
|Current location||Destroyed (1660, to make place for a wider road); watercolour copies by Albrecht Kauw in Bern, Historisches Museum|
|Commissioner||Various citizens from the city of Bern (see remarks)|
|Artist||Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, himself depicted on the last panel (original); Albrecht Kauw (copy)|
|Date||1515-1519 (original); 1649 (copy)|
|Dimensions||ca. 80 x 2,30 m (estimated)|
|Short description||Divided horizontally into 46 fields. The copies of Albrecht Kauw contain two fields per leaf. Two fields (13 and 46) span the width of two ordinary fields. Every field is accompanied by a poem about the depicted scene, in the fields with the actual dance of death a conversation between death and the person displayed.
First four fields: introduction to the dance of death, with depictions of the Expulsion from Paradise, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, the Crucifixion of Christ, and a chapel filled with bones and dancing and music-making corpses.
Fields 5-45: the actual Dance of death, a row with 41 representatives of medieval society, presented in hierarchical order, each accompanied by a dancing corpse, which in some instances is displayed as dragging a person to the grave. The row starts with clerics: the pope, the cardinal and other clergy, ending with the beguine, after which all ranks of secular society are treated, starting with the emperor, the king, representatives of the nobility, and so on, ending with the child, jews, and finally the painter Niklaus Manuel himself. The scenes are separated and connected at the same time by an architectural framework in the background, which encloses each pair of Death and a person with an arch. At each scene a coat of arms is depicted on the arch, sometimes also with additional text or pilgrimage insignia.
Last field: Death with a scythe, accompanied by a preacher holding a skull in his hand. The landscape is filled with dead people shot down with arrows. Also a tree of life, nearly chopped down, with people falling out of it.
|Text||For the transcriptions of all texts, see Zinsli|
|Number of pilgrims||4|
|General remarks||It is the question to what extent the water colours of Kauw and the transcriptions of the text represent the original paintings and texts by Niklaus Manuel, especially since we know that the painting was restored and overpainted several times before Kauw made the copies. However, a drawing of Death and the Canon of Niklaus Manuel which is still in existence, and might have been a sketch for the dance of death, shows us that the copies of Kauw resemble the original painting probably fairly well. The same goes for the texts, which reveal a lot of protestant anti-catholic rhetoric and might thus be adapted later. However, the Dance of Death theme more often contains social satire, and Niklaus Manuel may have altered the verses slightly himself after the city turned protestant in the 1520's. Only the last scene, the preacher, seems to be a later addition or alteration. (See Zinsli, pp. 7-16)
Kauw did not include the transcriptions of the verses on his drawings, so where they were located on the original is unknown. It is however likely that they were located under the scenes, as was usual with dances of death, succession series and the like.
The dance of death theme revolves around the idea that for Death, everyone is equal and each person will be judged by his sins. The theme involves an abstraction of society, in the form of a hierarchy of various persons from all social layers. That figures can be retraced to actual persons is very uncommon for the genre, as is the inclusion of the artist himself in the series. That many figures are not only abstractions but also some kind of portrait is attested by some figures showing distinct facial features, and the coats of arms. Moreover, a charter from 1561 mentions that Lienhard Tremp died,
der letst deren so zu den predgeren gemalet sind(the last of those who were painted at the Dominicans [monastery]). This does not mean, however, that there is a direct relation between the figures and the depicted persons. Caspar of Mülinen, for example, was by no means duke. This goes as well for other layers of society. The coats of arms are included everywhere, and therefore probably refer to the donors of each particular section more than to every depicted person. Where possible or wanted, the figure could consequently have been given the facial features of the donor. This makes the Bern Dance of Death both an abstraction of medieval society with a penitential message, as well as a manifestation of the pride of the city's elite.