Henrike Laehnemann


In 1463, the artist Bernt Notke created a new form of Danse Macabre for the St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck: He combined the dance with a portrayal of the contemporary cityscape. The most prominent section shows how the mayor, the dean, the nobleman and the doctor are dragged to dance in front of the silhouette of the Hanseatic hub, with detailed portraits of  all the churches, monasteries, towers, town gates and even the cemetery (appropriately appearing between death and the doctor). This shows a city at the height of its power, as centre of the Hanseatic trade. The chapel with the paintings burned down in 1942 but several copies preserve the design and the Middle Low German verses (the illustration is taken from the lithographs by Carl Julius Milde from 1853).

This Danse Macabre is a piece of intellectual history of Europe in its own right: the type of illustration being developed in Paris in 1424/25, the accompanying text composed in the Netherlands and then adapted for the Lübeck dialect and later copied and adapted by Bernt Notke for a retake of the topic for the St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn. In Lübeck, the Mohnkopf press printed two different vernacular expansions of the monumental Danse Macabre (1489 and 1520) which were traded together with other goods across the Hanseatic area whose lingua franca was Low German.

Source: Der Totentanz der Marienkirche in Lübeck und der Nikoliakirche in Reval (Tallinn). Edition, Kommentar, Interpretation, Rezeption, ed. by Hartmut Freytag. Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau 1993 (Niederdeutsche Studien Band 39)