The macabre encounter of skeletons mocking the living has haunted Case Western Reserve University art historian Elina Gertsman’s imagination since childhood walks with her grandfather through the St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn (now the Art Museum of Estonia).
That childhood fascination led to Gertsman’s newly published book, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance (Brepols, 2010), a rare and long-awaited volume on the subject.
What she first observed at St. Nicholas’s was a fragment of 13 life-size figures from the original 48 to 50 images that comprised the church’s enormous and important Dance of Death painting. The work, painted on canvas, is by German artist Bernt Notke and among the last of such images remaining in Europe.
The Dance of Death is a late medieval genre that, when incarnated as a large-scale public artwork, often combines images and text. It also demands interactivity with the viewer, who is engaged into the visual and verbal dialogue between the opposing protagonists of the procession, Gertsman said.