Bern Dance of Death

General information
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)
Material Watercolour (copy)
Dimensions ca. 80 x 2,30 m (estimated)
Visual elements
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
Depicted pilgrims
Personal information
Name Caspar of Mülinen
Social status / profession 1500: Marriage to Verena von Diesbach; 1500-1506: 'Schultheiß' of Burgdorf; 1509: Bailiff of Grandson; 1510-1515: Bailiff of Orbe-Echallens; 1517-1527: Member of the smaller city council of Bern (removed because of religious controversy); Negotiator for the city of Bern; 1516: In the service of Duke Ulrich of Württemberg
Date of birth 4 January 1481, Bern
Coat of arms On the arch: Semicircular shield - in gold a black mill-wheel, crest: a golden mill-wheel (von Mülinen)
Text On the arch: Ritter
Accompanying verse:
Death: Herr der Hertzog wie leüchten Ihr // nit anders dan ein irdin Geschir // Ir müßen jetz alle Ding verlan // und mit dem Todt zum Grab hingan
Duke: Ach Gott, mus ich so gächlich scheiden // von Land, Weib, Kind, Gelt und Kleiden, // Silber und Gold, Kettenen und Ring // das ist doch ein groß erschröcklich Ding
Other known portraits Single portrait in the Mülinen family collection, which is clearly related to the portrait in the Dance of Death (see the description of Bildindex)
Year of pilgrimage to Jerusalem 1506
Attributes Jerusalem pilgrimage Jerusalem cross (on arch)
Attributes other pilgrimage half wheel and sword of St Catherine (on arch)
Date of death 15 March 1538, Bern
Additional information related to this person
Personal remarks Kaspar von Mülinen founded a stained-glass window with his coat of arms and signs of pilgrimage in the church of Köniz. Another window, including the coat of arms of his wife, is currently in the Historisches Museum Bern
Personal information
Name Jacob of Roveréa
Social status / profession Lord of Crest, citizen of Bern, member of the greater city council (Große Rat; 1516), participant in various battles for the French, knight of the Holy Sepulchre, knight of St Catherine
Coat of arms On the arch: Semicircular shield - in red a silver bend with a blue crown; crest: a black eagle (?); supporter: a naked man (?) carrying a flag: in red a silver bend with a blue crown (Roveréa)
Text On the arch: Ich wart alt XXII jar; Ritter
Accompanying verse:
Death: Mächtiger Graff, sehend mich an, // den reisigen Zug land stil stan // den Erben befehln ewer Land // dan Ir mußend jetz sterben zu Hand
Count: Von edlen Stammen bin ich här // der Todt sagt mir jetz böse Mär // mein Herzschaft wolt ich lernen nießen // O Todt, wilt mir dan mein Leben beschließen
Other known portraits Single portrait in the Kunstmuseum Bern, 1523, signed 'HF'
Year of pilgrimage to Jerusalem 1515
Attributes Jerusalem pilgrimage Jerusalem cross (on arch)
Attributes other pilgrimage half wheel and sword of St Catherine (on arch)
Year of death 1528 (probably from the Plague while on campaign in Naples)
Additional information related to this person
Personal remarks Jacob of Roveréa is mentioned in the travel report of Peter Falk and Bernard de Mussy
Personal information
Name Albert vom Stein
Social status / profession Bailiff of Aarburg (1506); Member of the smaller council of Bern (Kleine Rat; 1514); Mercenary captain in Italy; Knight of the Holy Sepulchre; Knight of St Catherine
Coat of arms On the arch: Semicircular shield - in red a silver belt with a gold buckle, from wich three silver linden leafs are hanging; crest: out of a red (?) head two silver (?) trunks (vom Stein)
Text On the arch: Ritter
Accompanying verse:
Death: Du strenger theürer Ritter gut // du soltest han in treüwer Hut // die Wittwen, Weißlin und Gerechtigkeit // und allzeit sein zum Todt bereit
Knight: Darumb ich nit unrecht möcht vertragen // ward ich zu einem Ritter geschlagen // stürmbt deßhalb stett Schlößer und Bürgen // jetz wil mich der Todt auch erwürgen
Attributes Jerusalem pilgrimage Jerusalem cross (on arch)
Attributes other pilgrimage half wheel and sword of St Catherine (on arch)
Year of death 1522, in the battle of Bicocca
Personal information
Name Peter Falck
Social status / profession 'Schultheiß' in Fribourg
Coat of arms Held by death: Semicircular shield - bendy of 6 in silver and black; crest: a silver and a black wing (Falck)
Text Accompanying verse:
Death: Herr Schultheiß, nun der Todt ist hie, // besinnend eüch wol, was und wie // vor Gott Ir den zumal wollend sagen // ob etwar über eüch würde klagen
Schultheiß: Mein Regieren ist nit ein Gewalt // ich wach und richt in Dieners Gestalt // statt Land und Bürger laßt sich daran // noch mag ich dem Todt nit entgan
Year of pilgrimage to Jerusalem April 11, 1515 - January 1516
Attributes Jerusalem pilgrimage Jerusalem cross (on arch)
Attributes other pilgrimage half wheel and sword of St Catherine (on arch)
Travel report Peter Falck's report is lost, but there exists a version of his report written by his fellow traveller Bernard de Mussy
Date of death 6 October 1519
Additional information related to this person
Personal remarks Peter Falck was a fellow traveller of Jacob von Roveréa
Additional information
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.
  • Kaiser, Gert, Der tanzende Tod. Mittelalterliche Totentänze Herausgegeben, übersetzt und kommentiert von Gert Kaiser (Frankfurt am Main 1982)
  • Kettler, Wilfried, Der Berner Totentanz des Niklaus Manuel : philologische, epigraphische sowie historische Überlegungen zu einem Sprach- und Kunstdenkmal der frühen Neuzeit (Bern 2009)
  • Zinsli, Paul, Der Berner Totentanz des Niklaus Manuel, Berner Heimatbücher 54/55 (Bern 1953)
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