4.6 The nave north wall: the Dance of Death


The theme of the transience of life and the inevitability of Death and Judgement was also emphasised at Stratford in the 'Dance of Death' painting on the north wall of the nave (see model). The Dance of Death, or the Danse Macabre was closely related to images such as the 'Three Living and the Three Dead' a depiction of an encounter between three fashionably dressed living kings, out hunting in the forest, who encounter three walking skeletons depicted in an advanced state of decay, who remind the kings, that 'As you are, so we were; As we are; so you will become'. This image appeared in manuscripts such as the early 14th-century Psalter of Robert de Lisle, and in early 16th-century wall paintings such as those in Haddon Hall chapel, Derbyshire (Naydenova 2006, 182). There are also important parallels between the imagery of the Dance of Death and contemporary 'transi' or cadaver tombs (Binski 1996, 123-63). Another important poetic source may be Jehan le Fèvre's 1376 poem Respit de la Mort (Oosterwijk 2004, 62).

The central theme of the Dance of Death was that everyone, regardless of status, must die, and that Death makes no distinction between rich and poor, young or old. The Dance therefore depicted individuals of every rank, from Popes, kings and bishops, to merchants, artisans and even children, being led by corpses in various stages of decay. Individuals were often depicted as being ill-prepared for Death, who was often shown mocking his victims. Thus, the Danse Macabre could be a powerful expression of social criticism, as well as a reminder of the need to prepare for a good death by avoiding sin in life and following the advice of contemporary texts on the Ars Moriendi (Oosterwijk 2004, 77; and see Duffy 1992, 301-37; Marks and Williamson 2003, cat. 341).

The earliest datable reference to a representation of the Dance of Death is also French: a scheme recorded by the co-called Bourgeois of Paris as being painted on the walls of the cemetery of Les Saints Innocents on the rue Saint-Denis in Paris (Chaney 1945; Williams 1937). The cemetery belonged to a relatively poor parish church (not a Franciscan convent, as is sometimes claimed) and was not only a popular burial ground containing a series of charnel houses but also a popular meeting place (Oosterwijk 2004, 66; 2008, 132). Oosterwijk (2008) has provided a fascinating analysis of the possible patronage of the Les Innocents scheme by Philip the Good (1396-1467) during the Anglo-Burgundian occupation of the city. Her analysis suggests that the scheme may have been designed as homage to the dead King Charles VI, and that the arrangement and use of cryptoportraits of the Pope, the dead King but also the exclusion of the figure of the duke, was a deliberate, but careful, use of art as propaganda in the Burgundinian cause. Within a decade, the Dance of Death also appeared in a series of manuscripts, including the Bedford Book of Hours, of c. 1430-35 (Pierpoint Library MS M.359).

The Les Innocents Dance of Death was destroyed at some point in the 16th or 17th century, but its popularity spread rapidly, partly as a result of its dissemination in a printed edition with woodblocks by the Parisian printer, Guyot de Marchant, first published in 1485. There are important differences between the painting and the printed volume. The mural depicted a continuous chain of living and dead figures, whereas the format of the printed edition depicts two pairs of figures per page, usually one religious and one secular character (Oosterwijk 2004, 66). The 1485 edition contains only male figures, commencing with those of the highest rank and descending to those of lower status.

The Dance of Death spread to England through the work of the Benedictine monk and poet, John Lydgate who translated the poem from Les Innocents 'not worde be worde but folwyng the substance' while in Paris sometime before 1430. Lydgate's poem (Warren and White 1931) survives in two forms in a series of manuscripts known as the Group A and Group B texts. The six extant manuscripts of the Group A texts follow the order and range of the Parisian scheme. However, a series of female characters are added in various ways to the manuscripts of the Group B tradition, in contrast to the all-male cast of both the Les Innocents and Guyot de Marchant's 1485 scheme (Oosterwijk 2004, 69). Later editions of Guyot de Marchant's included a female Danse in 1486 and a fully illustrated new edition in 1491 (Oosterwijk 2004, 79).

In 1430 the wealthy London town clerk, John Carpenter (1371/2-1442) and close friend of the Mayor, Richard Whittington, commissioned a Dance of Death painting in the 'Pardon churchyard' of Old St Paul's Cathedral. In the second decade of the 15th century, Dean Thomas More enclosed the churchyard within a cloister, within which he built a 'faire chapell' dedicated to St Anne and St Thomas à Becket. The pardon churchyard rapidly became a popular burial place for the wealthy secular and ecclesiastical elite, as recorded by the antiquarian John Stow in the 16th century. However, Becket's chapel was also an important focus of civic ceremony. John Carpenter's Liber Albus of c. 1421 is a remarkable attempt to record and establish the history, customs and duties of London's civic authorities. In it Carpenter records that on October 28th, the Mayoral procession that followed elections concluded with a visit to the Becket tomb in the pardon churchyard (Appleford 2008, 303). Becket's father was also buried in the churchyard and in this way, Appleford (2008, 304) argues, the Becket family was appropriated as a 'tacit gesture toward civil self-governance in relation to the Crown'. This raises questions about whether the inclusion of St Thomas à Becket within the Stratford scheme was part of a broader reference to, or appropriation of, the St Paul's scheme.

John Lydgate may well have worked with John Carpenter on the St Paul's Dance of Death. Lydgate and Carpenter collaborated on other projects, including an account of Henry VI's entry into London, published in 1432 (Appleford 2008, 294). Appleford (2008, 296-97) argues that the choice of such ars moriendi subject imagery was not only an exemplary display of Carpenter's conservative civic pietism but also a deliberate representation of a stable political community that was at once Christian and heterogeneous:

'..Carpenter's and Lydgate's civic wall paintings refurbish the classical choral dance as a Christian monument, emphasizing the vanity and transience of earthly and human life — any particular person of any one estate — while evoking the dance as an image of the enduring nature of the London polity as a whole' (Appleford 2008, 301).

Appleford suggests that Lydgate's 'B' texts were the direct product of the St Paul's scheme, revising the 'A' texts aimed primarily at a courtly audience, through the omission of four courtly figures and the addition of eight new characters including a mayor, an artisan and a civic servant, the Famulus, aimed specifically at a London civic audience (Appleford 2008, 295-7). It is argued that support for this idea is provided by the fact that two of the Lydgate Group B manuscripts refer explicitly to the danse as the 'Dance of Poulys' (Clark 1950, 11; Warren and White 1931, xxiv). However, Oosterwijk (2010, 197) rejects this hypothesis, arguing that Appleford ignores literary evidence that the Group B manuscripts are unlikely to have been revised by Lydgate himself. Rather, she suggests that, as at Paris, the purpose of the St Paul's scheme was the construction of a cryptoportrait of Henry V, part of a panegyric tradition that commemorated the glorious early career and premature death of the king. Both the Les Innocents and St Paul's schemes may have drawn on contemporary tomb effigies for these cryptoportraits in another example of the interplay between wall paintings and other decorative arts (Oosterwijk 2010, 198). Indeed, Oosterwijk (2010, 199) argues that the Stratford-upon-Avon scheme provides direct support for this interpretation by updating the mantle of the king with the royal device of three lions passant gardant — that of the then-king, Henry VII in 1496 (Oosterwijk 2008, 155).

The 'Daunse of Poulys' as Carpenter's scheme became known, certainly exerted a profound influence on contemporary English art and the Dance featured in stained glass, sculpture, stained and painted cloths and possibly a tapestry dating to the latter part of the 15th century (Oosterwijk 2004, 70; 2010, 196). Four pairs of Danse Macabre figures are depicted on a screen in Hexham priory church (Northumberland). The stone screen surrounding the chantry of Robert Markham's chantry chapel, St Mary Magdalene, Newark-on-Trent (Notts) consists of multiple panels only two of which are now painted, depicting Death and the Gallant as a pair (Rouse 1978). However, the form of the screen may suggest it originally featured a longer Dance of Death (Gill, pers. comm.). Death and the Gallant was also the subject of an early 16th-century painting on the south wall of the now-demolished Hungerford Chantry Chapel in Salisbury Cathedral (Rosewell 2008, 84).

Another important example of a painted scheme relating to Lydgate is found in the Clopton Chapel at Long Melford church, Suffolk. Here, verses from 'The Testament of John Lydgate' were painted on boards running around the upper part of the chapel just below the level of the ceiling. The paintings were probably commissioned by John Clopton (1423-1496), who does not appear to have been related to the Stratford Cloptons, as far as current research can establish (Trapp 1955).

The 'Daunce of Poulys' appears to be the most obvious source of inspiration for the Stratford scheme. Clopton had been elected Sheriff of London in 1483 and Mayor in 1491 (Dictionary of National Biography) and would have known the St Paul's scheme intimately. According to Volume 1 of John Stow's Survay of London 'the daunce of Death' along with the cloister, tombs and monuments were 'pulled downe' in April 1549 by the order of Protector Somerset (Stow 1971, 327; see also Simpson 2001). However, the image does not appear to have been targeted specifically for doctrinal reasons (Appleford 2008, 306) and at Stratford the Dance may have survived into the 1570s, when Stow referred to it as the Daunce of Deathe, commonly called the Daunce of Powles' (Bodleian Library, Tanner MS 464, Vol. 5, fols. 53-105; quoted in Puddephat 1958 and reprinted 1960 SCLA SBTDR409/9). Indeed, if Oosterwijk (2010) is correct, its political meaning as a cryptoportrait of Henry VII, and its close association with the still-powerful Clopton family (Bearman 2007, 75-79) may have assisted its survival until the latter part of the 16th century. The possible survival of these paintings has been a source of endless fascination for Shakespearean scholars (see for example Wynne-Davies 2003).

The model and the painting

The model of the Dance of Death consists entirely of Wilfrid Puddephat's reconstruction of the scheme (Figure 22). As Puddephat 's notes and photographs attest, the Dance of Death was in an extremely fragmentary state by 1955. The 'superficial paint layers had been rubbed or scraped at some time in the past' off the 'L-shaped area' first explored by Puddephat (1958, 31). The medieval pigments had suffered 'severe abrasion under this treatment', as evidenced by a contemporary photograph of Puddephat recording the image (Figure 23). Nevertheless, he was able to identify the processional format and the extent of the original scheme. Throughout his research, Puddephat consistently refers to the painting as a 'fresco', a term he would have understood to imply that the Dance of Death, like the scenes from the Holy Cross, had been painted directly onto wet plaster, rather than being applied more directly onto a sealant painted on the surface of the stone, like the Doom painting above the chancel arch. However, as noted above, the Stratford paintings were not 'frescoes' in the technical sense of the term.

Figure 22   Figure 23

Figure 22: The Dance of Death, north wall of the nave, Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel, Wilfrid Puddephat (© Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, DR399/1/1/3/GC G51, reproduced with permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).
Figure 23: Wilfrid Puddephat recording a detail of the Dance of Death, north wall of the nave, Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel (© Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, DR624/34, reproduced with permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

The Dance of Death was painted immediately beneath the windows of the north wall of the nave. It extended 33¼ feet (10.1m) across and six and a half feet (1.9m) deep, beginning about nineteen inches (48cm) from the north door to the west, and ending three feet (91cm) short of the chancel wall. The 'frescoes' were arranged in two tiers, separated by a double line and each tier was then divided horizontally into three bands of varying depth: a six inch (16cm) title band, an 18 inch (45cm) picture band and a further band of inscription which was 12 inches (30cm) deep in the upper tier and 13 inches (33cm) in the lower (Puddephat 1958, 32) (Figure 24). The title bands were too indistinct to be deciphered. However, the distribution of surviving images indicated that each contained nine compartment, spaced one and half inches (4cm) apart. Although most were three and a half feet wide (c1m), there was some variation. The identification of minor variations within the scheme not only sheds light on Puddephat's precise survey methods, but may also tell us something meaningful about both the source for the paintings and the process through which they were created.

Figure 24

Figure 24:A montage by Geoff Arnott of Wilfrid Puddephat's photographs of the traces of the Dance of Death, north wall of the nave, Stratford-upon-Avon Guild Chapel (© Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, DR409/6/3-41, reproduced with permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

Puddephat's interpretation, and thus his reconstruction of the paintings, reflected his belief that the closest surviving manuscript sources for the Stratford paintings were two 'Group B' texts of John Lydgate's poem: MSS Corpus Christi 237 and Bodley 686 (Puddephat 1958, 32; Warren and White 1931). There were, however, some variations in the arrangement of the stanzas which he noted introduced an 'element of doubt' as to the precise order of those that had completely disappeared. More recently Clifford Davidson (1988, 7, 50-55) has suggested that there were also some similarities with 'Group A' texts of the Dance of Death, including British Library MS. Harl. 116. The description below presents Puddephat's record of the paintings, acknowledging where the paintings were indecipherable or missing, and notes Davidson's alternative suggestions. Puddephat never published his translation of the text of the stanzas accompanying the Dance of Death, although he was encouraged to do so (SCLA DR624/11). Thus, in 1988, Davidson (1988, 50-55) provided a comparative analysis of Puddephat's translation of the stanzas, and the Group B and A texts on which it was based, as well as Dugdale's (1658) description of the text as it appeared in the cloisters of St Paul's.

The first compartment of the Stratford Dance of Death was reserved for introductory material associated with two verses of the 'verba auctoris', and the last two for concluding the sequence (Figure 22). The procession of the actual Dance of Death was therefore spread across the remaining eighteen compartments: eight in the upper tier and seven in the lower. Each compartment featured sixty participants arranged in pairs; two in each compartment, while each pair consisted of 'a sprightly cadaver with a reluctant victim in its grasp'. Despite the condition of the painting, enough pigment had survived for Puddephat to note that the background of each compartment was painted a rich scarlet, with a 'floor' of 'vermilion and black tiles' set in a chequered pattern in the upper tier and a lozenge pattern in the lower. The figures appeared to be moving westwards across each of the compartments. The 'gaunt and grinning personifications of Death' were painted in a clay colour, leading victims dressed in the robes of their earthly rank, and carrying symbols of their worldly office. This use of pigments to visualise vividly the stages of putrefaction of corpses is also common in other Dance of Death schemes (Oosterwijk 2008, 140).

As elsewhere, the Stratford Dance commenced with those of the highest rank in the upper tier, descending in order to the lowest beneath. The band below each of the figures featured Lydgate's poem, the stanzas of which were spaced at intervals of approximately 11 inches (28cm), beneath the relevant illustration. There were some stanzas, such as the verses relating to Death and the Child and an epilogue delivered by a 'Dead King eaten by worms', that were combined together in a separate compartment. Missing figures included those in the eighteenth compartment, which Puddephat suggested probably featured 'Machabree the Doctoure' and the 'Translatoure', John Lydgate himself. Puddephat added stanzas beneath these figures, which were copied not from the Group B texts but rather from the Dance of St Paul's. Those figures for which Puddephat found no trace at Stratford are given in italics but were arranged in a 'probable' sequence based on the evidence of the Group B texts.

Diagrammatic layout of scheme

From Puddephat's analysis it is clear that the Stratford scheme draws directly on the St Paul's scheme. Stratford includes in its cast the civic characters that appear in these texts, including the Justice, Mayor, Sergeant of Law, Merchant, Artisan, Labourer, Sergeant of Office and Juror, which would have had particular resonance for its civic audience. Clopton's emulation of the scheme is not surprising, as an attempt to replicate Carpenter's statement of 'conservative civic pietism' within a Stratford context. However, it is also probable that he was aware of the other, more hidden meanings of the scheme, as a statement about civic society (Appleford 2008) or as a cryptoportrait of the reigning monarch (Oosterwijk 2010).

The lower tier of the Dance of Death also contained both the Latin and English names of the Seven Deadly Sins and Puddephat noted that illustrations of the torments awaiting those who had committed the sins of Gluttony and Lechery survived, inserted in the spaces between some of the stanzas in the lower inscription band. In this way, the Dance of Death linked back explicitly to the Doom painting over the chancel arch, suggesting further evidence of planning and coherence within the Guild Chapel scheme. However, the recurring images of the punishment of vice in the chapel is particularly interesting and Gill (pers. comm.) has suggested this might be a very rare attempt at a representation of Purgatory.


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