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MM Memento Mori; 
Dancing with Death

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From 10 March until 26 May 2000

Death and the painter; engraving from 1724In the exhibition room the University Library shows a number of books and prints which represent dances of death. MM signifies not only the year 2000 in Roman numerals, but also Memento Mori, remember you must die. The combination of these two meanings stimulated the Nederlandse Vereniging van Antiquaren (Dutch Association of Antiquarians) to organize an exhibition on the occasion of their 65th anniversary, in cooperation with the University Library.

The dance of death originated in the late Middle Ages and symbolized the power of death over man. Death, the black border of all life, death as the great leveller. After all, everyone is faced by the same fate, which ultimately renders futile all aspiration after earthly happiness, prestige, riches or power.
In the dance of death the dead usually carry along representatives of all walks of life in a round dance to the grave. The oldest pictures were wall paintings on graveyards and in churches or monasteries, but from the late 15th century they also appeared in books.
As a possible source for the dance of death the legend of the three living and the three dead is often mentioned. It is the story of a saint who has a vision of three men out hawking. On their way they come to three graves from which three dead men rise; these tell them that during their lives were highly placed. Their message is: you are what we were, you will be as we are now. The three falconers are sent on their way with the warning to attend more to the eternal life of the soul and less to the mortal body. The dance of death probably originated in a combination of a christian view of life and older, pagan ideas and customs.

Gaping bellies
Dance of death The pictures are usually accompanied by text, a dialogue between the living and the dead, in which gravity and exhortation are couched in a humorous, satirical form. What to make of skeletons merrily jumping about and playing a flute or bagpipes and grinning corpses with gaping bellies from which worms wriggle? In many dances of death passionate cultivators of universal human vices, such as gluttony, adultery, gambling, drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco, are exhorted to mend their ways. Before it is too late.

The exhibition shows 60 books from the University Library and is mainly composed of the collection donated to the library in 1871 by Th. Reichelt. Since then the Library has added to the collection. Other exhibits are from the collection of the recently departed prof.dr. H.H.W. Hogerzeil.
The oldest manuscript on view is from the early or mid-15th century, the most modern book was published as recently as in 1984. We have tried to give a more or less representative survey of the development of the dance of death, exhibiting one manuscript, reproductions from incunabula, some 16th-century breviaries and books in which dances of death occur. A special exhibit is a beautifully coloured copy of the so-called Dance of Death from Basle by Matthias Merian, in an edition of 1725. We pay particular attention to the most famous of all dances of death: that by Hans Holbein. There is a copy of the first edition (Lyon, 1538), but also a series of later editions and all kinds of imitations. Holbein put greater emphasis on representing in detail a scene from everyday life, in which death appears unexpectedly and unannounced. Sometimes people are caught during an activity which is not in accordance with their position, such as the nun surprised with her lover.
20th-century dances of death are still called dances of death, but do not really represent dances anymore. They are rather series of prints which emphasize the powerlessness of the individual confronted with death. You can see works by such artists as Thomas Rowlandson, Ferdinand Barth, Alfred Kubin, Frans Masereel, Ernest Barta and Hermann Schardt.

In a variety of ways the 'memento-mori' motif also occurred in popular prints for children and adults. About twenty prints from the collection of Arie van den Berg show how natural and often light-hearted was the presence of death on the walls of homes and inns in the 18th and 19th centuries: as part of the "Ladder of Ages" (print showing the various stages of life from infant to corpse), as a moralistic hint, as the final illustration in a print sold at fairs, as a protest against old age, or as a foreboding of the last journey.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue of 120 pages, crammed with fascinating stories about dances of death. This catalogue is on sale for ƒ 25,- in the exhibition room.

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Last modified: 12 May 2000
Editor: Monique Kooijmans