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  • Death and the Miniaturized CityNostalgia, Authority, Idyll
  • Elina Gertsman

"Miniature is an exercise that has metaphysical freshness."

Gaston Bachelard1

A lush landscape spreads in the background of Bernt Notke's Lübeck Dance of Death (ca. 1463), a landscape punctuated by a minute city, complete with towers, churches, houses, hospitals and a harbor: a world abandoned by the disconsolate dancers, who, grabbed by skeletal Death, are arranged at the very border of the painting, from the mighty Pope who opens the procession, to the defenseless Child in the cradle, the last one to be snatched away (Figure 1). The contrast between the sizable dancers lined up at the edge of the image and the miniature cityscape that stretches in the background is striking, and the presence of the urban panorama is all but singular among the series of fifteenth-century Dance of Death paintings still extant in Europe.2

The purpose of this paper is to explore the reasons for the inclusion of such a panorama, and to posit suggestions about the role that this miniaturized medieval Hanseatic city plays in the construction of meaning of the Lübeck Dance. "The miniature, linked to nostalgic versions of childhood and history," writes Susan Stewart in her book On Longing, "presents a diminutive and thereby manipulatable version of experience."3 In attending to one particular experiential version of the Dance of Death, I will argue that its cityscape plays a number of different roles: in allowing the spectators to recognize the image as a representation of a real place, it inscribes the patently phantasmagorical Dance within the space of the familiar and the customary; it participates in the contrast between the immediacy of the action taking place in the foreground and the longing for the idyllic past miniaturized in the background; it points to the emphatically permanent separation between the ambits of the dead and the living; it acts, in other words, as a catalyst for juxtapositions of time, space, and narrative. [End Page 43]

Popular throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, the Dance of Death (or danse macabre) imagery was found, most frequently, in a large-scale format, on the walls of parish churches and churchyards, although a number of manuscript and print images as well as sculptures are also known.4 The Dance usually figures a procession of men and women of various ages and social standings, intermingled with dancing skeletons or corpses who personify death. As its popularity grew, the Dance appeared in western and eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. Scholars have attempted to establish "family lineages" of these paintings, albeit with little success; commonly, the "French line" subsumes Dances created not only in France but in England, Spain, Italy, and, later, Portugal and Brazil, while the "German line" is believed to have engendered paintings in Austria, Bohemia, Switzerland, Poland, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, and even Denmark.5 As a rule, the danse macabre fresco executed between 1424 and 1425 for the Parisian Cemetery of the Holy Innocents is considered to be the ancestor of all the subsequent paintings.6 A close look at one of the earliest surviving Dance of Death paintings in the "German line," however, dispels the notion of such a smooth lineage: the Lübeck Dance differs dramatically both from those that preceded it and those that followed it precisely because it takes place in a setting considerably different from the standard featureless backdrop that characterizes the Dance of Death imagery.

The earliest known image of the Dance, for instance, which unfolded on the walls of the Parisian Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, took place within a nonspecific field dotted with flowers, and these pastoral surroundings are echoed in the Dances in Berlin (ca. 1485-1500), Meslay-le-Grenet (ca. 1490) and Nørre Alslev (ca. 1480), the latter image outlined against a stylized meadow (Figure 2). At Kernascléden (1440-1460), Chaise-Dieu (ca. 1460-70) and Kermaria (ca. 1490-1500), the dancers are assembled against a monochromatic background (Figure 3); at Ferté-Loupière (ca. 1500), the procession is inscribed within an ornate frame delineated against the white-washed church walls (Figure 4). These are but a few examples of...


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