Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

History of the Skeleton of Death.

Euthanasia! Euthanasia! an easy death! was the exclamation of Augustus; it was what Antoninus Pius enjoyed; and it is that for which every wise man will pray, said Lord Orrery, when perhaps he was contemplating the close of Swift’s life.

The ancients contemplated death without terror, and met it with indifference. It was the only divinity to which they never sacrificed, convinced that no human being could turn aside its stroke. They raised altars to Fever, to Misfortune, to all the evils of life; for these might change! But though they did not court the presence of death in any shape, they acknowledged its tranquillity; and in the beautiful fables of their allegorical religion, Death was the daughter of Night, and the sister of Sleep; and ever the friend of the unhappy! To the eternal sleep of death they dedicated their sepulchral monuments — Æternali somno!1 If the full light of revelation had not yet broken on them, it can hardly be denied that they had some glimpses and a dawn of the life to come, from the many allegorical inventions which describe the transmigration of the soul. A butterfly on the extremity of an extinguished lamp, held up by the messenger of the gods intently gazing above, implied a dedication of that soul; Love, with a melancholy air, his legs crossed, leaning on an inverted torch, the flame thus naturally extinguishing itself, elegantly denoted the cessation of human life; a rose sculptured on a sarcophagus, or the emblems of epicurean life traced on it, in a skull wreathed by a chaplet of flowers, such as they wore at their convivial meetings, a flask of wine, a patera, and the small bones used as dice: all these symbols were indirect allusions to death, veiling its painful recollections. They did not pollute their imagination with the contents of a charnel-house. The sarcophagi of the ancients rather recall to us the remembrance of the activity of life; for they are sculptured with battles or games, in basso relievo; a sort of tender homage paid to the dead, observes Mad. de Staël, with her peculiar refinement of thinking.

It would seem that the Romans had even an aversion to mention death in express terms, for they disguised its very name by some periphrasis, such as discessit e vita, “he has departed from life;” and they did not say that their friend had died, but that he had lived; vixit! In the old Latin chronicles, and even in the Fœdera and other documents of the middle ages, we find the same delicacy about using the fatal word Death, especially when applied to kings and great people. “Transire à Sæculo — Vitam suam mutare — Si quid de eo humanitùs contigerit, &c.” I am indebted to Mr. Merivale for this remark. Even among a people less refined, the obtrusive idea of death has been studiously avoided: we are told that when the Emperor of Morocco inquires after any one who has recently died, it is against etiquette to mention the word “death;” the answer is “his destiny is closed!” But this tenderness is only reserved for “the elect” of the Mussulmen. A Jew’s death is at once plainly expressed: “He is dead, sir! asking your pardon for mentioning such a contemptible wretch!” i. e. a Jew! A Christian’s is described by ”The infidel is dead!” or, “The cuckold is dead.”

The ancient artists have so rarely attempted to personify Death, that we have not discovered a single revolting image of this nature in all the works of antiquity.2 — To conceal its deformity to the eye, as well as to elude its suggestion to the mind, seems to have been an universal feeling, and it accorded with a fundamental principle of ancient art; that of never permitting violent passion to produce in its representation distortion of form. This may be observed in the Laocoon, where the mouth only opens sufficiently to indicate the suppressed agony of superior humanity, without expressing the loud cry of vulgar suffering. Pausanias considered as a personification of death a female figure, whose teeth and nails, long and crooked, were engraven on a coffin of cedar, which enclosed the body of Cypselus; this female was unquestionably only one of the Parcæ, or the Fates, “watchful to cut the thread of life.” Hesiod describes Atropos indeed as having sharp teeth and long nails, waiting to tear and devour the dead; but this image was of a barbarous era. Catullus ventured to personify the Sister Destinies as three Crones; “but in general,” Winkelmann observes, “they are portrayed as beautiful virgins, with winged heads, one of whom is always in the attitude of writing on a scroll.” Death was a nonentity to the ancient artist. Could he exhibit what represents nothing? Could he animate into action what lies in a state of eternal tranquillity? Elegant images of repose and tender sorrow were all he could invent to indicate the state of death. Even the terms which different nations have bestowed on a burial-place are not associated with emotions of horror. The Greeks called a burying-ground by the soothing term of Cœmeterion, or “the sleeping-place;” the Jews, who had no horrors of the grave, by Beth-haim, or, “the house of the living;” the Germans, with religious simplicity, “God’s-field.” The Scriptures had only noticed that celestial being “the Angel of Death,”— graceful, solemn, and sacred!

Whence, then, originated that stalking skeleton, suggesting so many false and sepulchral ideas, and which for us has so long served as the image of death?

When the Christian religion spread over Europe, the world changed! the certainty of a future state of existence, by the artifices of wicked worldly men, terrified instead of consoling human nature; and in the resurrection the ignorant multitude seemed rather to have dreaded retribution, than to have hoped for remuneration. The Founder of Christianity everywhere breathes the blessedness of social feelings. It is “Our Father!” whom he addresses. The horrors with which Christianity was afterwards disguised arose in the corruptions of Christianity among those insane ascetics who, misinterpreting “the Word of Life,” trampled on nature; and imagined that to secure an existence in the other world it was necessary not to exist in the one in which God had placed them. The dominion of mankind fell into the usurping hands of those imperious monks whose artifices trafficed with the terrors of ignorant and hypochondriac “Kaisers and kings.” The scene was darkened by penances and by pilgrimages, by midnight vigils, by miraculous shrines, and bloody flagellations; spectres started up amidst their ténèbres; millions of masses increased their supernatural influence. Amidst this general gloom of Europe, their troubled imaginations were frequently predicting the end of the world. It was at this period that they first beheld the grave yawn, and Death, in the Gothic form of a gaunt anatomy, parading through the universe! The people were frightened as they viewed, everywhere hung before their eyes, in the twilight of their cathedrals, and their “pale cloisters,” the most revolting emblems of death. They startled the traveller on the bridge; they stared on the sinner in the carvings of his table and chair; the spectre moved in the hangings of the apartment; it stood in the niche, and was the picture of their sitting-room; it was worn in their rings, while the illuminator shaded the bony phantom in the margins of their “Horæ,” their primers, and their breviaries. Their barbarous taste perceived no absurdity in giving action to a heap of dry bones, which could only keep together in a state of immovability and repose; nor that it was burlesquing the awful idea of the resurrection, by exhibiting the incorruptible spirit under the unnatural and ludicrous figure of mortality drawn out of the corruption of the grave.

An anecdote of these monkish times has been preserved by old Gerard Leigh; and as old stories are best set off by old words, Gerard speaketh! “The great Maximilian the emperor came to a monastery in High Almaine (Germany), the monks whereof had caused to be curiously painted the charnel of a man, which they termed — Death! When that well-learned emperor had beholden it awhile, he called unto him his painter, commanding to blot the skeleton out, and to paint therein the image of — a fool. Wherewith the abbot, humbly beseeching him to the contrary, said ‘It was a good remembrance!’—‘Nay,’ quoth the emperor, ‘as vermin that annoyeth man’s body cometh unlooked for, so doth death, which here is but a fained image, and life is a certain thing, if we know to deserve it.’”3 The original mind of Maximilian the Great is characterized by this curious story of converting our emblem of death into a parti-coloured fool; and such satirical allusions to the folly of those who persisted in their notion of the skeleton were not unusual with the artists of those times; we find the figure of a fool sitting with some drollery between the legs of one of these skeletons.4

This story is associated with an important fact. After they had successfully terrified the people with their charnel-house figure, a reaction in the public feelings occurred, for the skeleton was now employed as a medium to convey the most facetious, satirical, and burlesque notions of human life. Death, which had so long harassed their imaginations, suddenly changed into a theme fertile in coarse humour. The Italians were too long accustomed to the study of the beautiful to allow their pencil to sport with deformity; but the Gothic taste of the German artists, who could only copy their own homely nature, delighted to give human passions to the hideous physiognomy of a noseless skull; to put an eye of mockery or malignity into its hollow socket, and to stretch out the gaunt anatomy into the postures of a Hogarth; and that the ludicrous might be carried to its extreme, this imaginary being, taken from the bone-house, was viewed in the action of dancing! This blending of the grotesque with the most disgusting image of mortality, is the more singular part of this history of the skeleton, and indeed of human nature itself!

“The Dance of Death,” erroneously considered as Holbein’s, with other similar Dances, however differently treated, have one common subject which was painted in the arcades of burying-grounds, or on town-halls, and in market-places. The subject is usually “The Skeleton” in the act of leading all ranks and conditions to the grave, personated after nature, and in the strict costume of the times. This invention opened a new field for genius; and when we can for a moment forget their luckless choice of their bony and bloodless hero, who to amuse us by a variety of action becomes a sort of horrid Harlequin in these pantomimical scenes, we may be delighted by the numerous human characters, which are so vividly presented to us. The origin of this extraordinary invention is supposed to be a favourite pageant, or religious mummery, invented by the clergy, who in these ages of barbarous Christianity always found it necessary to amuse, as well as to frighten the populace; a circumstance well known to have occurred in so many other grotesque and licentious festivals they allowed the people. The practice of dancing in churches and church-yards was interdicted by several councils; but it was found convenient in those rude times. It seems probable that the clergy contrived the present dance, as more decorous and not without moral and religious emotions. This pageant was performed in churches, in which the chief characters in society were supported in a sort of masquerade, mixing together in a general dance, in the course of which every one in his turn vanished from the scene, to show how one after the other died off. The subject was at once poetical and ethical; and the poets and painters of Germany adopting the skeleton, sent forth this chimerical Ulysses of another world to roam among the men and manners of their own. A popular poem was composed, said to be by one Macaber, which name seems to be a corruption of St. Macaire; the old Gaulish version, reformed, is still printed at Troyes, in France, with the ancient blocks of woodcuts, under the title of “La Grande Danse Macabre des Hommes et des Femmes.” Merian’s “Todten Tanz,” or the “Dance of the Dead,” is a curious set of prints of a Dance of Death from an ancient painting, I think not entirely defaced, in a cemetery at Basle, in Switzerland. It was ordered to be painted by a council held there during many years, to commemorate the mortality occasioned by a plague in 1439. The prevailing character of all these works is unquestionably grotesque and ludicrous; not, however, that genius, however barbarous, could refrain in this large subject of human life from inventing scenes often imagined with great delicacy of conception, and even great pathos. Such is the new-married couple, whom Death is leading, beating a drum; and in the rapture of the hour, the bride seems, with a melancholy look, not insensible of his presence; or Death is seen issuing from the cottage of the poor widow with her youngest child, who waves his hand sorrowfully, while the mother and the sister vainly answer; or the old man, to whom Death is playing on a psaltery, seems anxious that his withered fingers should once more touch the strings, while he is carried off in calm tranquillity. The greater part of these subjects of death are, however, ludicrous; and it may be a question, whether the spectators of these Dances of Death did not find their mirth more excited than their religious emotions. Ignorant and terrified as the people were at the view of the skeleton, even the grossest simplicity could not fail to laugh at some of those domestic scenes and familiar persons drawn from among themselves. The skeleton, skeleton as it is, in the creation of genius, gesticulates and mimics, while even its hideous skull is made to express every diversified character, and the result is hard to describe; for we are at once amused and disgusted with so much genius founded on so much barbarism.5

When the artist succeeded in conveying to the eye the most ludicrous notions of death, the poets also discovered in it a fertile source of the burlesque. The curious collector is acquainted with many volumes where the most extraordinary topics have been combined with this subject. They made the body and the soul debate together, and ridicule the complaints of a damned soul! The greater part of the poets of the time were always composing on the subject of Death in their humorous pieces.6 Such historical records of the public mind, historians, intent on political events, have rarely noticed.

Of a work of this nature, a popular favourite was long the one entitled “Le faut mourir, et les Excuses Inutiles qu’on apporte à cette Necessité; Le tout en vers burlesques, 1658.” Jacques Jacques, a canon of Ambrun, was the writer, who humorously says of himself that he gives his thoughts just as they lie on his heart, without dissimulation —“For I have nothing double about me except my name! I tell thee some of the most important truths in laughing; it is for thee d’y penser tout à bon.” This little volume was procured for me with some difficulty in France; and it is considered as one of the happiest of this class of death-poems, of which I know not of any in our literature.

Our canon of Ambrun, in facetious rhymes, and with the naïveté of expression which belongs to his age, and an idiomatic turn fatal to a translator, excels in pleasantry; his haughty hero condescends to hold very amusing dialogues with all classes of society, and delights to confound their “excuses inutiles.” The most miserable of men, the galley-slave, the mendicant, alike would escape when he appears to them. “Were I not absolute over them,” Death exclaims, “they would confound me with their long speeches; but I have business, and must gallop on!” His geographical rhymes are droll.

Ce que j’ai fait dans l’Afrique

Je le fais bien dans l’Amérique;

On l’appelle monde nouveau

Mais ce sont des brides à veau;

Nulle terre à moy n’est nouvelle

Je vay partout sans qu’on m’appelle;

Mon bras de tout temps commanda

Dans le pays du Canada;

J’ai tenu de tout temps en bride

La Virginie et la Floride,

Et j’ai bien donné sur le bec

Aux Français du fort de Kebec.

Lorsque je veux je fais la nique

Aux Incas, aux rois de Mexique;

Et montre aux Nouveaux Grénadins

Qu’ils sont des foux et des badins.

Chacun sait bien comme je matte

Ceux du Brésil et de la Plate,

Ainsi que les Taupinembous —

En un mot, je fais voir à tout

Que ce que naît dans la nature,

Doit prendre de moy tablature!7

The perpetual employments of Death display copious invention with a facility of humour.

Egalement je vay rangeant,

Le conseiller et le serjent,

Le gentilhomme et le berger,

Le bourgeois et le boulanger,

Et la maistresse et la servante

Et la nièce comme la tante;

Monsieur l’abbé, monsieur son moine,

Le petit clerc et le chanoine;

Sans choix je mets dans mon butin

Maistre Claude, maistre Martin,

Dame Luce, dame Perrete, &c.

J’en prends un dans le temps qu’il pleure

A quelque autre, au contraire à l’heure

Qui démésurément il rit;

Je donne le coup qui le frit.

J’en prends un, pendant qu’il se lève;

En se couchant l’autre j’enlève.

Je prends le malade et le sain

L’un aujourd’hui, l’autre le demain.

J’en surprends un dedans son lit,

L’autre à l’estude quand il lit.

J’en surprends un le ventre plein

Je mène l’autre par la faim.

J’attrape l’un pendant qu’il prie,

Et l’autre pendant qu’il renie;

J’en saisis un au cabaret

Entre le blanc et le clairet,

L’autre qui dans son oratoire

A son Dieu rend honneur et gloire:

J’en surprends un lorsqu’il se psame

Le jour qu’il èpouse sa femme,

L’autre le jour que plein de deuil

La sieune il voit dans le cercueil;

Un à pied et l’autre à cheval,

Dans le jeu l’un, et l’autre au bal;

Un qui mange et l’autre qui boit,

Un qui paye et l’autre qui doit,

L’un en été lorsqu’il moissonne,

L’autre eu vendanges dans l’automne,

L’un criant almanachs nouveaux —

Un qui demande son aumosne

L’autre dans le temps qu’il la donne,

Je prends le bon maistre Clément,

Au temps qu’il prend un lavement,

Et prends la dame Catherine

Le jour qu’elle prend médecine.

This veil of gaiety in the old canon of Ambrun covers deeper and more philosophical thoughts than the singular mode of treating so solemn a theme. He has introduced many scenes of human life which still interest, and he addresses the “teste à triple couronne,” as well as the “forçat de galère,” who exclaims, “Laissez-moi vivre dans mes fers,” “le gueux,” the “bourgeois,” the “chanoine,” the “pauvre soldat,” the “médecin;” in a word, all ranks in life are exhibited, as in all the “Dances of Death.” But our object in noticing these burlesque paintings and poems is to show that after the monkish Goths had opened one general scene of melancholy and tribulation over Europe, and given birth to that dismal skeleton of death, which still terrifies the imagination of many, a reaction of feeling was experienced by the populace, who at length came to laugh at the gloomy spectre which had so long terrified them!

1 Montfaucon, “L’Antiquité Expliquée,” i. 362.

2 A representation of Death by a skeleton appears among the Egyptians: a custom more singular than barbarous prevailed, of enclosing a skeleton of beautiful workmanship in a small coffin, which the bearer carried round at their entertainments; observing, “After death you will resemble this figure: drink, then! and be happy.” A symbol of Death in a convivial party was not designed to excite terrific or gloomy ideas, but a recollection of the brevity of human life.

3 “The Accidence of Armorie,” p. 199.

4 A woodcut preserved in Mr. Dibdin’s Bibliographical Decameron, i. 35.

5 My greatly-lamented friend, the late Mr. Douce, has poured forth the most curious knowledge on this singular subject, of “The Dance of Death.” This learned investigator has reduced Macaber to a nonentity, but not “The Macaber Dance,” which has been frequently painted. Mr. Douce’s edition is accompanied by a set of woodcuts, which have not unsuccessfully copied the exquisite originals of the Lyons wood-cutter.

6 Goujet, “Bib. Françoise,” vol. x. 185.

7 Tablature d’un luth, Cotgrave says, is the belly of a lute, meaning “all in nature must dance to my music!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53