1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Macabre

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MACABRE, a term applied to a certain type of artistic or literary composition, characterized by a grim and ghastly humour, with an insistence on the details and trappings of death. Such a quality, deliberately adopted, is hardly to be found in ancient Greek and Latin writers, though there are traces of it in Apuleius and the author of the Satyricon. The outstanding instances in English literature are John Webster and Cyril Tourneur, with E. A. Poe and R. L. Stevenson. The word has gained its significance from its use in French, la danse macabre, for that allegorical representation, in painting, sculpture and tapestry, of the ever-present and universal power of death, known in English as the “Dance of Death,” and in German as Totentanz. The typical form which the allegory takes is that of a series of pictures, sculptured or painted, in which Death appears, either as a dancing skeleton or as a shrunken corpse wrapped in grave-clothes to persons representing every age and condition of life, and leads them all in a dance to the grave. Of the numerous examples painted or sculptured on the walls of cloisters or churchyards through medieval Europe few remain except in woodcuts and engravings. Thus the famous series at Basel, originally at the Klingenthal, a nunnery in Little Basel, dated from the beginning of the 14th century. In the middle of the 15th century this was moved to the churchyard of the Predigerkloster at Basel, and was restored, probably by Hans Kluber, in 1568; the fall of the wall in 1805 reduced it to fragments, and only drawings of it remain. A Dance of Death in its simplest form still survives in the Marienkirche at Lübeck in a 15th-century painting on the walls of a chapel. Here there are twenty-four figures in couples, between each is a dancing Death linking the groups by outstretched hands, the whole ring being led by a Death playing on a pipe. At Dresden there is a sculptured life-size series in the old Neustädter Kirchhoff, removed here from the palace of Duke George in 1701 after a fire. At Rouen in the aitre (atrium) or cloister of St Maclou there also remains a sculptured danse macabre. There was a celebrated fresco of the subject in the cloister of Old St Paul’s in London, and another in the now destroyed Hungerford Chapel at Salisbury, of which a single woodcut, “Death and the Gallant,” alone remains. Of the many engraved reproductions, the most celebrated is the series drawn by Holbein. Here the long ring of connected dancing couples is necessarily abandoned, and the Dance of Death becomes rather a series of imagines mortis.

Concerning the origin of this allegory in painting and sculpture there has been much dispute. It certainly seems to be as early as the 14th century, and has often been attributed to the overpowering consciousness of the presence of death due to the Black Death and the miseries of the Hundred Years’ War. It has also been attributed to a form of the Morality, a dramatic dialogue between Death and his victims in every station of life, ending in a dance off the stage (see Du Cange, Gloss., s.v. “Machabaeorum chora”). The origin of the peculiar form the allegory has taken has also been found, somewhat needlessly and remotely, in the dancing skeletons on late Roman sarcophagi and mural paintings at Cumae or Pompeii, and a false connexion has been traced with the “Triumph of Death,” attributed to Orcagna, in the Campo Santo at Pisa.

The etymology of the word macabre is itself most obscure. According to Gaston Paris (Romania, xxiv., 131; 1895) it first occurs in the form macabre in Jean le Févre’s Respit de la mort (1376), “Je lis de Macabré la danse,” and he takes this accented form to be the true one, and traces it in the name of the first painter of the subject. The more usual explanation is based on the Latin name, Machabaeorum chora. The seven tortured brothers, with their mother and Eleazar (2 Macc. vi., vii.) were prominent figures on this hypothesis in the supposed dramatic dialogues. Other connexions have been suggested, as for example with St Macarius, or Macaire, the hermit, who, according to Vasari, is to be identified with the figure pointing to the decaying corpses in the Pisan “Triumph of Death,” or with an Arabic word magbarah, “cemetery.”

See Peignot, Recherches sur les danses des morts (1826); Douce, Dissertation on the Dance of Death (1833); Massmann, Litteratur der Totentänze (1840); J. Charlier de Gerson, La Danse macabre des Stes Innocents de Paris (1874); Seelmann, Die Totentänze des Mittelalters (1893).