The theatrical figure of Death haunted stage plays and also dance performances of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The danse macabre has a long iconographic history across Europe: murals and sculptures survive in France, England, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Slovenia, the Baltic States, and Denmark. The tradition was at its peak in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but it persisted well beyond, with the motif occurring on murals, and in manuscript and print well into the eighteenth century. London’s medieval Cathedral of St Paul’s boasted an elaborate cycle, painted on panels with verses by John Lydgate. This so-called Paul’s Dance was widely known but destroyed in 1549. Danse macabre scenes survive in other English churches, for instance, in Stratford-upon-Avon and Hexham.
In the danse macabre, Death was a Leveller, summoning men, women, and children from all walks of life to a dance. The reluctant participants range from the Pope, Emperor, or Bishop, to the young maiden and the infant in the cradle. The arrangement is usually processional, with the protagonists joining hands, and progressing in a single line. Allusions to theDance of Death can be found in medieval drama, for instance, the Chester cycle; whether it was performed as well is unknown, but it is a possibility. Historians have debated whether and how iconographic evidence might relate to actual performances. In some cases there is clear evidence: in Bern, the painter and poet Niklaus Manuel (1484-1530) completed a danse macabre fresco around 1520, and a performance was attested in 1637 and 1638. The costumes survive, with skull masks and canvas suits showing a skeleton.
For our Dance of Death in the show The Sacred and the Profane, we produced special skeleton costumes based on surviving evidence. We also used a range of masks made of pasteboard and leather. For the courtiers we used fabrics of a medieval and Renaissance character. Some of these were purchased from special manufacturers in Italy and Germany. The Boy Bishop wore Venetian lampas.