The preoccupation with the decaying body is seen in late medieval and early renaissance art. Depicted as the dancing skeleton, he appeals to all because he transcends all social barriers. The dancing skeleton is without flesh but he dressed in rotting guts and worms. The dancing skeleton in particular is called the danse macabre. "It is only much later that the adjective is abstracted from la danse macabre that has acquired for us such a crisp and particular nuance of meaning that with it we can label the entire late medieval vision of death."[1] Holbein's series of woodcuts titled "Dance of Death" became the prototype of the danse macabre completed at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Within the series, Death takes away a diverse group of people, escorting each person whether a child, traveler, or a noblewoman individually. Holbein did a whole series of images where death can be seen escorting individuals from each estate to the unknown.

Woodcuts were generally used to depict the dance macabre. The woodcut by Guyot Merchant predates Holbein's series by fifteen years but it displays the dancing skeleton leading kings, queens, peasants, and children to death as well. The dancing skeleton is similar to the modern idea of the grim reaper. The ghostly image of death leading a person away from his earthly obligations and possessions has not changed much throughout the ages and continues to evoke a similar fear of the unknown.

 

or

 


 

[1] John Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, (Chicago, 1996) p.164.