Dance of Death


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Copyright (textes)
1996-2018 © Patrick Pollefeys

Beram's churchThere are two dances of death in the region of Istria, ex-Yougoslavia. The first one is located in Hrastovlje, Slovenia ; the second and oldest one is in Croatia, more precisely in Beram. St-Mary's church (see picture left) lies outside the city. It is decorated with many frescoes : Saint Martin, the entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem, the Last Supper etc. However, its masterpiece is a dance of death painted by Vincent de Kastav in 1474. In this work of art, like in the dances of death of Hrastovlje and of Clusone, the characters walk in procession from right to left. Unfortunately, time has damaged the painting ; some characters are now scarcely distinguishable, and because windows have been made in the wall, the lower section of the fresco is in some parts destroyed. In this dance of death, the skeletons do not really dance ; they rather walk. The usual narrator is replaced by a skeleton playing bagpipe. This absence of a narrator underlines the fact that there is no text to this dance of death.

Beram part 2Beram part 1

There are ten characters in this dance ; each one is accompanied by Death. After the first skeleton come the pope, the cardinal, the bishop, the king, the queen, the innkeeper, the child, the maimed, the knight, and finally the merchant, who stands by a table covered with goods. Notice that the laymen are separated from the clerics ; the first three characters are religious men, while the others are not. The order in which they are introduced is most peculiar. Of course the king comes first, bearing his sceptre adorned with lilies, and then the queen follows. But the innkeeper, the child and the maimed come before the knight, which breaks the rule : usually the dance of death complies with the social hierarchy. The skeletons do not wear the usual shroud ; they are naked, and show protuberant thighbones in place of a pelvis. Some of them play music. The bagpipe player is not alone : four other skeletons play some wind instrument, and one plays the mandoline. Two skeletons are armed ; the one walking with the innkeeper carries a scythe, and the one accompanying the knight flourishes a bow. The merchant, who is last in joining the dance, tries to bribe Death by pointing at his money. His efforts are futile : Death will never spare a " dancer " in exchange of mere riches.