The Dance of Death

Part of the "Dance of Death", Hexham Abbey, by Mike Quinn. Reproduced under CC-BY-SA-2.0 licence.
Part of the “Dance of Death”, Hexham Abbey, by Mike Quinn. Reproduced under CC-BY-SA-2.0 licence.

We’re counting down an ‘advent’ calendar of highlights from the exhibition Plays, Processions and Parchment: Discovering Festive Traditions in the North East of England, which launches on 19th April. This exhibition celebrates some of the forgotten folk traditions, religious rituals, performance history, and plays from the region.

The day before the exhibition begins, we’re looking at end-times in the form of the dance of death. The tradition of the Dance of Death or Danse Macabre can be found all over Europe. Here in the North East, a striking reminder of its prominence can be found in Hexham Abbey, in this painting that depicts a cardinal dancing with a skeleton.

As this image suggests, traditionally Death is shown ‘dancing’ representatives of all classes, ranks and occupations to their death – men and women, old and young, rich and poor, powerful and humble. The Dance made the moral point that however powerful in life, we all die in the end; the warning should urge us all to live a good life.

There is some evidence that the dance was not only shown in paintings like this, but also sometimes enacted. A dance of death will be performed as part of the Sacred and Profane show during the Theatrum Mundi festival in July. Before then, come along to the exhibition to find out more about the dance of death – as well as other, more celebratory, forms of dancing popular in the medieval period.

Plays, Processions and Parchment runs from 19th April to 22nd May in the Chapel of Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral. Entry is free. Visit the website for more details, and to see the accompanying programme of weekly talks. The exhibition is curated by Records of Early English Drama North East


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