Dances, Death Rites and Dedications: The Art of Dying

  • by Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

Throughout history, death has inspired artists to create stirring and thought-provoking work. As death affects us all and invokes a whole range of emotions, there are myriad examples of death-inspired art. These include explorations of the nature of death, depictions of deaths and funerals, as well as dedications and monuments for the dead. Artwork of this kind provides an illuminating insight into different attitudes towards our mortality. It also provides a useful starting point for conversations about dying, death and bereavement. To mark the upcoming Dying Matters Awareness Week (8-14 May 2017) we have delved into our Art Library archives in order to showcase some death-related art books.

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Our first item is the wonderfully titled ‘The Dances of death, through the various stages of human life: wherein the capriciousness of that tyrant is exhibited: in forty-six copper-plates’. A Dance of Death, also known as a Danse Macabre, is a representation of a dance in which people are summoned to die by spectral personifications of Death. In each scene, Death enters to claim his victim and we see the nature of their death. Some deaths seem calm and dignified, others less so. Several versions of the Dance of Death have been produced. This particular version, published in 1803, includes etchings produced by an eighteenth-century printmaker called David Deuchar. The etchings are based on woodcuts produced by the sixteenth-century German artist Hans Holbein, although Deuchar made some alterations to Holbein’s work.

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Most versions of the Dance of Death show the dying moments of people from all walks of life, ranging from the most powerful to the most unfortunate. The intention is to remind us that death is the great leveller: everyone will die, regardless of their station in life. Our 1803 version follows this tradition, showing the deaths of kings, emperors, clergyman, farmers and beggars. This version also incorporates criticisms of those at the top of the social scale. In the depiction of a judge’s death, for instance, the judge appears to spend his final moments taking a bribe (see above). Criticisms are also levelled at those with dubious morals. The illustration of a gambler’s death, for instance, suggests that the gambler’s lifestyle has caused him to be claimed by the Devil as well as Death (see below).

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Our second item comes from the world of painting. ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’ explores a variety of paintings held by our close neighbours, Leeds Art Gallery. One particularly relevant painting is Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’ (below). Knoll’s painting shows a grieving Victorian family about to bury their mother in a country graveyard. The family includes young children, who have obviously lost their mother far too early. According to the guide, Knoll chose this subject to highlight the hardships of country life to his rich city-dwelling patrons.

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Our next item represents funerary art. Practised in most cultures of the world, funerary art includes any creative work produced in connection to repositories for the dead, such as graves or sepulchres. It can also include memorials and dedications to the dead. Some striking examples of funerary art can be found in ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’, published 1898-1901. Monumental brasses are brass sheets engraved with depictions or dedications to the dead; they are often found covering tombs in churches. ‘The Oxford Portfolio…’ contains rubbings of these brass engravings, all beautifully presented on large folio-size sheets.

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

We stay with funerary art for our last item. ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’ contains over 600 illustrations of stone tomb monuments from various centuries, including obelisks, headstones and incised slabs (stone slabs with designs engraved into their surface). The illustrations are rendered in a delightfully painstaking fashion; besides their value as an archaeological record, they are quite stunning to look at in their own right.

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Further examples of death-inspired artwork will be on display in the Art Library throughout May 2017. The display will feature books and images relating to artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Lady Butler and John Everett Millais.