Lead Stealing the Danse Macabre: Changing Roles & Identities in the Modern Dance of Death

Originally exhibited September 12–December 16, 2022
The Elizabeth Perkins Prothro Galleries

In the Middle Ages, the Dance of Death presented a message of radical equality. The figure of Death came for everyone: wealth, power, and status offered no protection. Furthermore, Death came on its own schedule, for young and old alike. While in some cases, Death may have been represented as the recently deceased—remnants of flesh clinging to the corpse and perhaps even bearing a face—Death most often appears as a purely skeletal form.

The Dance of Death was predominantly interpreted through a Christian lens that cautioned everyone to abandon their obstinacy and live a life of faith. But the figure of Death itself presents no distinctly Christian attributes. It is not an Angel, and it seemingly takes joy in escorting—or dragging—its charges. The identity of Death presents us with a number of questions: is it a supernatural force or merely an abstraction? We can say that for centuries Death was shown and viewed as external to humanity and human concerns. It acted in spite of the positions or efforts of people.

In contrast, artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries blur the distinction between Death and its human victims. Death appears at times to be a constant presence among people. Death may walk amid the crowd, dressed like everyone else. People themselves can bear the facial characteristics of Death. Perhaps most dramatically, humans are themselves depicted as the active agents of Death. They ensure their own demise through folly and vice. They cause the deaths of others through acts of cruelty and war. The concerns and causes of death on a large scale multiplied across the twentieth century and into the beginning of the twenty-first. Genocide, fascism, economic inequality, and climate change have all come to represent existential threats and implicated human responsibility. Yet, some works offer hope in the recognition of responsibility that allows for other choices. And Death may not always be an enemy, but a chance for renewal. 


Bridwell Library Special Collections