Entrance to the Chiesa di St-Vigile, Pinzolo


he Danse Macabre is an extraordinary type of artwork springing from an era when disease ran rampant and human beings were forced to bow to Death. The Black Plague savaged 1/3 of Europe from the mid-1300s, and other plagues followed. Consequently Europeans became fascinated with Death. The Cimetière des Innocents in Paris featured beneath the arches of its walls skeletons leading prominent men to their demise. It was painted in 1423. This concept, termed Il Ballo di Morte in Italy , Danse Macabre in French, The Dance of Death in English, Dança de la Muerte in Spanish, and Totentanz in German, spread throughout Medieval Europe, where Death was viewed by the serfs as the one great equalizer. The Paris cemetery was destroyed in 1780, but fortunately woodcuts were made by Hans Holbein the Younger, and published several years later by editor Guyot Marchand in the 1485. Copies and variations on Danse Macabre artwork existed elsewhere in Europe, but most have vanished with time. Italy is home to at least three Danse Macabres dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. We were fortunate to see these valuable but overlooked reflections of a time when Death was personified, and not only feared but respected.


lusone is a town north of Milan at the Southern tip of the Italian Alps. In 1485, local artist Giacomo Borlone painted a Danse Macabre on the exterior walls of the Oratory of the Disciplinarians, an order of flagellant monks. These paintings have survived time and remain vivid depictions of the danse, based on a medieval hierarchy with Death in skeletal form wearing a crown and reigning as worker skeletons lead ordinary people to their demise. What is unique about this version is that many of the religious personages are making offerings to Death, presumably in exchange for either a longer life, or immortality.

Side wall of the Oratory of the Disciplinarians.

A vivid depiction of Death reigning supreme.
Skeletons and humans
interacting in the Danse.

A detail of the flaggellants' praying.


e wended our way up through the twists and turns on the narrow road through the Italian Alps. Pinzolo is a small resort town popular with skiers in winter. Our room looked out over the Chiesa di St-Vigile. In 1539 Simone Baschenis, a local artist, painted a Danse Macabre across the top of one wall of the church. This Danse depicts both men and women being danced to their death by skeletons.

The Chiesa di St-Vigile, and graveyard.

Men and women of different stations accosted by Death.
In this Danse Macabre,
arrows indicate that Death waiting so
patiently must soon be addressed.

Detail of Death as a hunter.
A discussion with the Devil.
Such discourses predate Danse Macabre.


wo kilometres from Pinzolo is a valley village called Carisolo. In 1519, twenty years before painting the church in Pinzolo, Simone Baschenis depicted the Danse Macabre on the walls of the Chapel of San Stephano.

The Chapel of San Stephano, Carisolo.

The Danse Macabre images are low on the wall, faded more from human contact than from the elements.
A detail of burial.

Death in dialogue with an unhappy mortal.


he territory in the far north of Italy has long been in dispute. Both Austria and Italy have laid claim to this mountainous land where it's hard to imagine summer. Consequently, when Italy took possession, many Austrians became Italian citizens and as we travelled further north, signs were in Austrian, architecture had altered, and many people spoke both Austrian and Italian. Close to the border is the tiny wind-swept valley town of Plaus, near Merano, extremely Austrian in style, tone and temprement. The Church and graveyard of Plaus stand in the center of the town, and a modern Danse Macabre was painted in 1999 along the exterior walls.

The Church of Plaus.

A mound of skulls; Death has been busy.
Bikers rail against Death.


Special thanks to Patrick Pollefeys for directing us to the Danse Macabre in Italy. Check out his extensive site on the


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