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This book consists of an innovative and informative collection of articles that examine the visual and textual motif of the Danse Macabre from its emergence in the late fourteenth century. Competently edited by Sophie Oosterwijk and Stephanie Knöll, it has 17 chapters, 21 high-quality colour plates, 116 black and white figures, and an extensive bibliography. The volume takes a necessarily broad, interdisciplinary approach to depictions of the Danse. Using texts such as plays and liturgy, and imagery such as illumination, stained glass, mural, fresco and brass, it examines various aspects of the Danse and its many parallels, including the Three Living and the Three Dead, Death personified, tomb iconography, and cadaver monuments. Most significantly, the study transcends national boundaries by bringing together studies from different languages and cultural traditions into one accessible volume. The only welcome addition would be a gazetteer of Danse imagery (probably too large a corpus for this volume).
As Oosterwijk and Knöll demonstrate in the introductory chapter, the Danse was a diverse image with a wide variety of typologies. Its success was due to its widespread impact and accessibility, which resulted from its prominence in text and image, and from its presence in both public and private spaces (on monumental and miniature scales). As Oosterwijk discusses in a later chapter, the Danse was also adaptable and could be constantly altered and updated, incorporating metaphors from (for instance) dance, music, social satire and portraits. Applicable to human suffering, it reminded contemporaries of salvation through Christ, and transgressed social hierarchies to appeal to all Christians to fulfil their earthly duty. Ultimately, the Danse prompted viewers to consider their own mortality and the fact that they may soon join the dance.
All contributions to the edition are academically commendable, and a number stand out as significant contributions to medieval (and post-medieval) studies. Beginning with a reinterpretation of the ‘Imago Mortis’ woodcut from Hartmann Schedel’s Liber Chronicarum or Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), Oosterwijk contextualizes the different traditions and forms of the Danse. She argues that the Danse defies definition because the many transformations mean the original significance and reception is lost. She goes on to examine the commonly confused depictions of ‘the dead person’ and ‘Death personified’, concluding that it is often impossible to distinguish Death from more generic dancers whose varied appearance may be naked, shrouded, skeletal, fleshy or putrid in form. Even more crucially, she maintains that both textual and visual representations of the Danse not only depict a dialogue between the living dancers and dead, but that the spectator or reader (or even translator) may also be addressed directly by cadavers. Oosterwijk also discusses chess as a metaphor for death, a motif which is almost certainly represented in the sole-surviving stained-glass panel from the Danse Macabre series at St Andrew, Norwich (c.1500). Here, Death and a bishop stand on a tiled floor resembling a chess board [Fig. 2].
A further notable chapter is Christine Kralik’s examination of the illuminated depictions of the Three Living and the Three Dead, a morality tale that sees three kings meet three skeletons who say something to the effect, ‘As you are, we once were; as we are, so shall you be’ [Fig. 3].
Kralik describes how the image, which shares certain themes with the Danse, almost certainly emerged in the secular context of the thirteenth century French court. She demonstrates that although Three Living and Three Dead imagery initially accompanied the text of the story, by the early fifteenth century a location shift meant that the motif emerged in devotional lay manuals, often accompanying Office of the Dead liturgical prayers. Within this new context, the Three Living and Three Dead underwent a striking transformation, assuming a more sinister and aggressive mood. The ominous encounter is depicted in the Hours of Anne de Beaujeu (attributed to the Master of the Munich Boccaccio, c.1470). Here, the sneering corpses move threateningly towards the young riders, who express both acknowledgement and dramatic surprise. This fundamental transformation in typology, Kralik argues, can be attributed to a change in function and meaning. Association with the Office of the Dead encouraged more ardent contemplation of the accompanying prayers (said on a daily basis for one’s own soul and for the souls of the deceased), and more effective preparation for death, particularly if personalized by accompanying heraldry, insignia or portraiture. As an embodiment of the idea of death, the Three Living and the Three Dead had become a striking and visually persuasive image.
Dr Ellie Pridgeon
David King, ‘The Indent of John Aylward: Glass and Brass at East Harling’, in Monumental Brass Society, Transactions, xviii/3, 2011, pp. 251–67. To buy a copy, visit the society’s website.
A fascinating article in the latest issue of the Journal of the Monumental Brass Society focuses on the output of a mini-business empire owned by William Heywood, a late fifteenth-century glazier in Norfolk. Written by CVMA (GB) author David King, its starting point is a monumental brass commemorating John Aylward, the parson (sometimes documented as rector) of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul at East Harling, a village about twenty-five miles south-west of Norwich.
According to a will dated 1503, Aylward instructed his executors to buy the brass from the workshop of William Heywood, a prominent figure in Norwich, who became a freeman of the city in 1485 before dying in 1505. The will was discovered by the late Roger Greenwood, a leading expert on monumental brasses, and it remains a landmark of its kind, because Heyward was primarily known as a glazier. The subsequent discovery of Heyward’s own will, in which he bequeathed some scraps of latten (brass) to Knapton Church about twenty miles north-east of Norwich, hints strongly that Heyward made both brass and glass, albeit not necessarily employing the same craftsmen to do so. Among the questions raised by such discoveries is whether Heywood was offering a complete funeral service from brasses to stained glass and other arts.
The author then uses stylistic similarities between Heyward’s surviving glass and brass figures to confirm earlier suggestions by Greenwood that some painted rood screens in the county might also be products of Heyward’s busy workshop. Thus the splendid figure of St Michael and the dragon on the rood screen at Ransworth is compared to the fragmentary remains of a stained glass window at East Harling attributed to Heyward. In both instances the angels have curly hair, high eyebrows, dimpled chins and heavy eyelids and wear an ermine tippet with patterned hem from which their wings protrude [Figs 4 and 5].
He also suggests that a well-known wall-painting of St George at the church of St Gregory in central Norwich might be another product of this multi-media workshop, especially as the latter almost certainly appears to have been the inspiration for the same scene on a rood screen at the parish church of St Andrew Wellingham dated 1532, again suggesting a workshop connection between the two schemes [Figs 6 and 7].
Parson/rector: the holder of an ecclesiastical benefice who has full possession of its rights. Medieval vicars, by contrast, were by appointed by corporate bodies such as monasteries who received the great or rectorial tithes.
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