Posted in Curiosa & Forteana, Eyecandy, Historia & Memoria, Horror / Goth, Illustration, Interna by Suzanne on November 16th, 2011 | BBC Wikipedia
Pest from Bilder des Todes oder Todtentanz für alle Stände by Carl Merkel & Johann Gottfried Flegel, Leipzig, 1850 – click to enlarge
“I cook doom in the air and what breathes has to die.”
It’s this time of year again – a time of such enormous transformation and transmutation in nature – when I find myself doing strange and silly things like obsessively reading the Nibelungen or losing myself in Skyrim because of some ominous melancholy and a deep longing for being reunited and rot away with the earth, the elements, of sinking, of dissolving, of dreamless thankful sleep.
And I really miss how this time of year feels like in my homeland. I miss the magic of how the mist and will-o’-the-wisps rise magnificently over the frosty fields and graveyards, how the forests creak with the cold like old bones, how the crows complain over the lack of grains, how the dormice hurriedly prepare their beds of leaves for a harsh winter.
Jungfrau from Bilder des Todes oder Todtentanz für alle Stände by Carl Merkel & Johann Gottfried Flegel, Leipzig, 1850 – click to enlarge
“Youth, so fiery, with cheeks so red. So blissful is love – so hideous is death.”
I miss the lake steaming in the morning, I miss still gasping at that fierce, majestic and omnipotent ancient natural fortification wall, the Alps, putting on its snowy white coat under the absolutely colourless and closed heavens even though I have seen its sight a million times. I miss the smell of bonfires and the sound of whips cracking in the clear glassy evening air. I miss hearing cowbells and spotting lanterns dancing like fireflies in the distant dark.
But mostly, I miss hiding in the medieval section of libraries hugging the radiator and a cup of really shitty instant coffee, completely immersed in studying Totentänze only to be thrown out at closing time and walking home aimlessly and hurt and finding myself in front of the Spreuer Bridge – that illustrated passage over the river Reuss talking to me so vividly from 1630 via the playful and treacherous skeletons of Caspar Meglinger.
Deliquent from Bilder des Todes oder Todtentanz für alle Stände by Carl Merkel & Johann Gottfried Flegel, Leipzig, 1850 – click to enlarge
“One death as retribution for the other. So does both justice and crime serve me.”
Growing up in Catholic Switzerland meant I’ve seen A LOT of danse macabres in my early childhood and by the time I moved to Protestant Basel to study, I was ready for their more scientific, demystified and bürgerliche understanding of the dance of death. I can’t say I understood it at first – I felt it was sorely lacking in the flamboyant Baroque accusatory celebration of decadence and the deadly sins. Protestant Totentänze are never about a sexy death. What I saw was a way more silent and depressing death. Anonymous diseases finishing people off from within instead of inebriated tomfoolery until the very end and very dull modest existences just being blown out rather than the grotesque fights for life and death seen in Catholic cycles.
It took a short train journey in 2002 from Basel to the university library of Freiburg im Breisgau (it’s a fucking Goth uni – the art department was literally in the catacombs) to rekindle my love for the Totentanz. It was there where I found a copy of the Leipzig Todtentanz für alle Stände (Dance of Death for all Classes) – excerpts of which you can see here.
Handwerker from Bilder des Todes oder Todtentanz für alle Stände by Carl Merkel & Johann Gottfried Flegel, Leipzig, 1850 – click to enlarge
“This house that you have built for yourself – let me see whether it fits you.”
Todtentanz für alle Stände was conceived by Carl Merkel and the woodcuts are by the absolutely fantastic Johann Gottfried Flegel. It was published in Leipzig in 1850. You can read the entire book here. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried when I first saw these – the carefully selected botanic symbolism of each and every scene relating to the trade or rank of the portrayed person, the way scenes turn into ornament, ornament into filigree and finally filigree into calligraphy. A whole world opened itself up to me when I first saw these and I hope you will appreciate getting lost in them too. I’m sorry I couldn’t make the English translation rhyme like the German original – it would take me ages to do it gracefully.
I would like to thank my dear friend Peacay from BibliOdyssey for making me remember this very special Totentanz. You have no idea how much finding this on your blog means to me, PK.
How lucky we are to walk amongst the proud dead.
Künstler from Bilder des Todes oder Todtentanz für alle Stände by Carl Merkel & Johann Gottfried Flegel, Leipzig, 1850 – click to enlarge
“All your hopes and aspirations were in vain – but now death is fairer than life.”