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Dance of Death

The Dance of Death, located in St Anthony’s Chapel of St Nicholas’ Church, is the best-known and most valuable medieval artwork in Estonia. Only a fragment containing thirteen figures has been preserved. Against the background of an autumn landscape, the dance of mortals is introduced by a preacher from a pulpit, followed by figures of Death holding a bagpipe and carrying a coffin. The first dancer is the Pope, wearing a papal tiara. The mortals who follow him are the Emperor, holding a sword and an orb, the beautiful Empress, the Cardinal and the King. In the right-hand corner of the painting, it is possible to see the edge of the robe of the next character, the Bishop. Under the figures there is a winding band with text, a painted dialogue in verse between Death and the other characters written in the Low German language.

Dance of death in five languages

There is a cloud of mystery over whether the work was indeed originally located in St Nicholas’ Church and what happened to the rest of it. Since merely a seven-and-a-half metre initial fragment survives of the Tallinn Dance of Death, it is not known who was depicted in its other parts and how long it initially was. It has been estimated that the total length of the work, consisting of several pieces, might have reached almost 30 metres. The painting was presumably commissioned for St Matthew’s Chapel (known as St Antho­ny’s Chapel since the 17th century) of St Nicholas’ Church at the end of the 15th century. The chapel was enlarged and rebuilt from 1486 to 1493. The first written reference to the Dance of Death dates from 1603, from the account book of the warden of St Nicholas’ Church. No information has survived about who commissioned the work, yet it has been assumed that it was donated by a brotherhood, guild or a wealthy individual.

 

The Dance of Death of St Nicholas’ Church was painted by Bernt Notke, one of the most distinguished artists in northern Europe in the Late Middle Ages. Notke had painted the topic before: in 1463 his workshop finished a painting with 49 figures for St Mary’s Church in Lübeck. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Dance od Death of Lübeck was in such bad condition that a copy of it was commissioned in 1701 from the painter Anton Wortmann (the copy perished in 1942). The painting begins with Death playing a flute and ends with a baby in a cradle.

The painting in Tallinn was done by the author, Bernt Notke, and it differed somewhat from its Lübeck version. The backgrounds of the two works are different: while in the Tallinn Dance of Death the figures are depicted against an autumn landscape and a few buildings from Lübeck, the Lübeck Dance of Death had the panorama of the town as a background. There are differences in the verses too. The uniqueness of the painting is emphasised by the fact that it is the only surviving medieval Dance of Death in the world painted on canvas.