By Patricia Lightfoot

Place: St. Matthew’s Chapel, Niguliste Church, Tallinn, Estonia

Time: Late fifteenth century

What was happening: German artist Bernt Notke had painted a danse macabre or “dance of death” to be displayed in the church. The subject of the painting, skeletons leading understandably reluctant humans in a macabre dance, is surprising to twenty-first century eyes, but was a common theme of the late-Medieval period to remind people that they would die, whatever their station in life.

In what remains of this painting, a priest in his pulpit admonishes his congregation. To his left, a skeletal figure plays the bagpipes. Another skeletal figure carries a coffin and pulls at the pope’s robes. The pope, the Emperor, the Empress, a cardinal and a bishop are all being led by their sprightly skeletal escorts in a dance that ends with death.

Given that this was a time when the Black Death regularly swept through Europe, and war or a lack of immunization, clean water and good hygiene could quickly end any person’s life, it is hard to believe that the inevitability of death would readily be forgotten. Some have suggested that this topic was intended by the churches that commissioned such work to encourage penitence.

Photo credit: Phillip Lightfoot