Totentanz at St. Mary's Church Berlin, 1484
The porch of St.Mary's church in Berlin is decorated with a 22 metres long and 2 metres high dance of death, which goes back to the pest outbreak in 1484. The fresco was modified in the 16th century : an artist painted the legs of the characters anew, in a different position, in order to enhance the illusion of movement (now that this second layer of paint is partially washed out, you can see at some place a portrait of Death with three legs !) In 1614 the walls of the church were whitewashed. The dance of death was forgotten and remained so until its rediscovery in 1860. Time, mould, several wars and many cracks in the wall have badly damaged this 500 year old painting. Fortunately, a programme was launched in 1987 to protect and restore this important work of art. The 27 characters taking part in this dance of death belong to the laity as well as to the clergy. A Franciscan friar (the artist ?) in his pulpit opens the dance. At his feet are painted two strange misshapen creatures : one is playing bagpipe and the other is crouching on the ground. Several characters then join the dance : a sacristan, a chaplain ( ?), an official, an Augustinian friar, a Dominican friar, a pastor, a Carthusian monk, a doctor, a monk, a canon, an abbot, a bishop, a cardinal, and the pope. In the middle of the composition, Mary and John adore Jesus Christ on His cross. This crucifixion is a remarkable peculiarity of Berlin dance of death ; it seldom happens that Jesus is painted in this type of artistic work. In the fresco of St.Mary's church, He joins the dance exactly like the common men ; He moans the same way as they do ("Pourquoi dois-je porter une telle couronne d'ˇpines acˇrˇes ! Why do I have to wear such a crown of sharp thorns ! "), acknowledges that death is inescapable (" Vous devez tous mourir - c'est obligˇ... You all must die - it's inevitable..."), and urges all men to follow him (" Venez tous avec moi dans la danse macabre Come you all with me and join the dance of death "). The artist chose to include Jesus Christ in his dance of death to show his conviction: God forgives everybody who repents.
On the other side of the cross come the laymen : the emperor, the empress, the king, the duke, the knight, the burgomaster, the usurer, the young noble, the merchant, the state official, the peasant, the innkeeper and the jester. Notice that the socially most important people, the clergymen as well as the laymen, are closest to Christ. Another interesting peculiarity in the structure of this fresco : the characters walk in procession to the right, whereas Death always looks to the left. So Death always stares straight at the onlooker who walks in the same direction as the characters of the painting. The onlooker himself is thus integrated into the dance of death. This illusion must have made a strong impression on the people of the Middle Ages.
Death forms a couple with each character. He does not look like the usual skeleton or putrefying body, but like a very thin man. We can see the bones under his skin. He is always dressed in a shroud except when he dances with the pope : then he is naked. This emphasizes the idea that all men are equal, and that they all should learn humility. The pictures of Berlin dance of death are accompanied by 362 verses of a German dialect (Niederdeutsch). Although the bulk of the text remains, some lines are so washed out nowadays that they have become illegible.