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April 15, 1961


JAMA. 1961;176(2):142-143. doi:10.1001/jama.1961.03040150058017

The pictorial presentation of Death was a favorite expression in art during the Middle Ages and throughout the Renaissance. Paintings were executed on the walls of cloisters and churches, on canvas, on church screens, and on tombs. Glass windows, woodcuts, copper plates, woodcarvings, block books, illuminated manuscripts, and tapestries were other media for the treatment of the mortal theme. Death, portrayed by a skeleton or a mummified cadaver, touched the shoulder or clasped the arm of the living, a chaperon on the one-way path to the charnel house. The phantom danced along as a gruesome spectacle, sometimes playing a musical instrument. The earliest extant examples of the dance depict the magic, superstition, and mysticism of the Middle Ages. Fear of death was the intended motif, rather than release from life. The oldest known wall painting with an exact date (1424) is the "Danse Macabre" of the cloisters of the Innocents