Dance of Death

Nørre Alslev

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Dansk udgave

Copyright (textes)
1996-2018 © Patrick Pollefeys

Denmark prides itself on two dances of death. The first (and oldest) one is found in the city of Egtved; unfortunately, it is in bad condition. The second one, very well preserved, was painted in Nørre Alslev. Some specialists consider another work, the Jungshoved fresco, to be a Danish dance of death; however, a thorough analysis leads us to believe that this painting belongs to a different genre.

Nørre Alslev
A dance of death adorns the church of Nørre Alslev, on Falster Island. It was painted around 1480 and then whitewashed in the 17th century, as well as many other medieval frescoes, to be rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century. You must read the picture from left to right. The first figure, almost completely erased, is a dead who sits on the ground while playing a wind instrument. Only four people follow him: the king, the bishop, the nobleman and the peasant. Arabesques and stylized flowers decorate the picture. Since there is no text to the painting, it is difficult to determine who indeed are the partners of the living ones in this farandole. Some specialists believe they are devils and not dead; they point out that the bishop's partner has horns, while another creature sticks out her tongue in a devilish way. Nevertheless, a closer look at the picture reveals that these "horns" and "tongue" are in fact worms or snakes crawling out of the eyeholes and mouth of the corpses. This makes the dead even more loathsome and amplifies the feeling of fright in the spectator's soul. Click here for a bigger picture.

Situated in Jylland, the continental area of Denmark, the city of Egtved keeps in its church a dance of death dating back to 1450 (click the picture above to see six images close-up). Unfortunately, this once very impressive fresco has been badly damaged. When the dances of death came out of fashion, the church officials put wooden stalls against the walls, thus covering the painted figures from shoulders to toes. Consequently, the dancers have a beautifully preserved body, considering their old age… but they all lost their head! Only the dead leading the dance kept his skull. Did the upper part of the fresco vanished by itself, as time went by? Or did the flock grow tired of looking at heads floating in the air and beheaded the figures? Whatever happened, the surviving part of this dance of death is now under protection. The last time the church was restored, the fresco was cut out and mounted on a glass fiber.

the whole fresco

With its 21 characters - ten dead, ten living and one unknown figure - this dance of death is the most important one in Scandinavia. However, due to its state of decay, we can't figure out the social class of all dancers. Unlike most dances of death, this one must be read from right to left. It begins with a prologue. In this first picture Christ, who is covered with wounds (and beheaded like every other figure), stands up beside a chalice. This reminds us of a vision the pope Gregory IV once had: he saw the Lord bleeding, and the blood that poured from His body was caught in a precious vessel. The prayer that goes with this painting tells of the sufferings the Christ endured to save us all. The actual dance of death then begins with a skeleton taking the pope away, then the emperor, or king, and the cardinal. The seven figures that follow can't be identified with certainty. The last character could be a skeleton. But since his foot differs from all others, it is also possible that he be a preacher; although this figure usually appears at the beginning of the dance, not at the end.

According to many Danish art historians, a dance of death hides in this little town of the Sjaelland area. However, this work looks more like the representation of a folktale widespread in Scandinavia. Once upon a time, there was a young girl, beautiful and innocent, that caught the eye of a ladies' man. To seduce her, he promised her a crown and endless riches. The girl ran off with him. But as soon as they found themselves alone, the handsome knight revealed his true nature: under his human skin hid a devil (or a monster, depending on the version of the tale)! This story, and not the dance of death, would have inspired the Jungshoved artist. At least, this is what believes Lise Præstgaard Andersen, the first one to lead a serious research on this fresco.


From left to right (click here for a clearer picture), we can see the almost totally erased silhouette of a knight, followed by a young girl, a devil, another girl and another knight, also very hard to distinguish. The first damsel walks arm in arm with the knight and the devil; she will soon succumb to temptation. The second damsel already wears as crown. The devil holds her hand, while the knight turns his back on her; she took the presents and yielded to the forces of evil.

Whatever the nature of the Jungshoved fresco, I don't believe it belongs to the genre of the dance of death. The central figure, in black, looks much more like a devil than like a corpse. If you look closely, you will notice he has a tail and spurs! As for the living, they are only four, each of them from the nobility. No clergyman, no burgher, no poor: this is very surprising indeed for a dance of death, whose most important tradition was to show people from different social classes. Furthermore, two of the four dancers are women. Now, except for the Women's Dance of Death by Guyot Marchand (a feminine version of a medieval best-seller, essentially published to make money), all dances of death show a majority of masculine figures.

Those pictures of Denmark dances of death are from Axel Bolvig and Martin Hagstrøm. Mr. Bolvig has recorded all the frescoes to be found in Danish churches. To visit his site, click here. Mr Hagstrøm translated into Danish this part of my website and scanned some images. Click here to read about danishe's dance of death on his website.