Death the Leveller

From her bathtub vantage point, surrounded by petals and unguents, semi-retired pop-singer Madonna recently called coronavirus ‘the great equalizer’.

The virus, she said, ‘doesn't care about how rich you are, how famous you are, how funny you are, how smart you are, where you live, how old you are, what amazing stories you can tell.’ Madonna’s remarks, delivered from a position of wealth and luxury, attracted criticism and satire, including a parody version conveyed, not from the tub but the water closet.

Long ago, another ‘equalizer’ was less contentious. A central figure in the art of the macabre, ‘Death the Leveller’ fascinated people as far back as ancient Greece. In Medieval Europe, recurring plagues and other disasters made Death the Leveller a central theme of religious art and popular culture. A proliferation of images showed an animated, personified, skeletal Death walking around and showing up in all sorts of unexpected places.

Death images featured prominently in the European renaissance and the dawn of printing. Published in Lyons in 1499, La Danse Macabre shows animated skeletons in a printer’s shop – one of the earliest printed images of a printery. Published in Lyons in 1538 and immensely popular for the rest of the sixteenth century, Les simulachres and historiees faces de la mort features forty-one Dance of Death engravings by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Holbein’s famous series shows a busy Death extinguishing a candle in a nun’s bedchamber; climbing the Emperor’s throne to remove his crown; entering the doctor’s office with a urine specimen; swiping coins from the miser’s bank vault; tying a necklace of bones around a young noblewoman’s neck; dragging the covers from a duchess’s bed; interrupting an astrologer in his study; helping to drive Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden; and in sundry other vignettes.

This ghoulish interest continued well into the modern era. (The theme appears in Hamlet and Nicholas Nickleby, for example.) Among the images from Thomas Rowlandson’s nineteenth-century English Dance of Death are an antiquary in his bedchamber writing his last will and testament; a fashionable lady in her boudoir; a gourmet at his table; and patrons at a cheap bar – all accompanied by an animated Death.

Why was the image of an active, personified Death so enduringly terrifying – and fascinating? One reason is that it may have played on deep-seated personal and social anxieties. Here are seven anxious readings of the Dance of Death.

Death as disruptor of gender and sexuality

For early audiences, the de-fleshed, degendered, asexual Death signified a vexing disruption of socially acceptable gender roles. The default reading of the animated skeleton is male, but – statistically – this reading is incorrect half the time. In more than one way, the empirical error of reading Death as typically male presented an anxious paradox for patriarchal societies. From the male Death, a critical bone is absent; the Death figure’s castration conveyed a loss of power and virility – and yet the animated figure is as potent and active as ever, and therein lies much of the power and even the horror of the image.

Gender play appears frequently in Dance of Death images. Death in fine dresses; Death putting on make-up daintily at a dressing table; Death as a seductress. Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada showed Death in a fancy, frilly, girlish hat. Johann Rudolf Schellenberg depicted a finely dressed and coiffed Death attempting to lure a gentleman to his peril.

Phallic symbols, too, are conspicuous – swords, spears, arrows, artillery, towers, snakes, musical instruments, walking sticks, big hats – as are emblems of threatened or lost potency. The language of Death (dancing, reaping, levelling, sleeping) is also euphemistically loaded.

Death as a disruptor of social class

The proto-Marxist theme ‘you can’t take it with you’ is prominent in early Dance of Death images. Neither rich nor poor, Death was a threat to social distinctions and to the entire capitalist economy. Matthew Merian’s Dance of Death (Basel, 1649) shows how emperor, empress, king, queen, lawyer, senator, merchant, usurer, peddler, cook and peasant were all equal in the face of Death. The same theme is prominent in images of Holbein’s miser and noblewoman: Death comes for all.

Death as disruptor of race and nationality

Needless to say, we are all the same colour underneath. Death brings an end to nationality, and to the culturally loaded differences in skin tone and soft-tissue that have long separated and segregated people in racist societies. In Victorian England, for example, part of the terror of Death was that it treated all races and countries of the world equally: it came for all, and it turned all into the same Death.

Death as age disruptor

Typically, the animated Death is depicted as an adult, but is otherwise ageless, and disconcertingly sprightly. In Rowlandson’s English Dance of Death (1814-16), Death leads a fox hunt, competes in a horse race, fights in a boxing match, ice-skates, mans a cannon on a battlefield, throws a man into an undertaker’s cart, pushes a loaded wheelbarrow, and dances a jig. We are all the same age in Death.

Death as species disruptor

The figure of (human) Death was often depicted with figures of (animal) death. Images of the Four Horsemen on grotesque, emaciated, skeletal beasts are examples, as are tableaux of Death with animal skeletons. In these images, elaborate social, anthropological and zoological distinctions between vertebrates break down, and human Death becomes a natural history exhibit.

Death as life disruptor

Though dead, Death continues along just fine, usually with skin-off, sometimes with a little bit of skin – creepily – still on. Death is a challenge to the boundary between animate and inanimate, animal and mineral, flesh and bone. The life spirit of Death has departed, but it is still hanging around, too.

Death as time disruptor

Time has moved strangely in the COVID era. Weeks of lockdown seem like years. The years before the crisis now seem strangely compressed. In the Dance of Death, too, time is disrupted. The Death figure has transcended earth’s chronology. The lively and diverse activities of the animated Death are subject to no time limit. Death has no fear of mortality and is in no hurry. Often, the theme of Death and time was made explicit by pairing animated skeletons with sundials, hourglasses, clocks and celestial bodies.

Death as a disruptor of sex, class, race, age, species, life, time. Traces of these seven anxieties seem to dwell in a collective subconscious, only to bubble up intermittently to appear in paintings, prints, Shakespeare, Dickens, role-playing games, Chemical Brothers video clips, and pop stars’ ill-considered remarks about the global pandemic. What can we conclude from the enduring power of this macabre topos? The resilience of Death must say something profound about the meaning of life.

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