After the Black Death killed an estimated sixty percent of the European population in the fourteenth century, Death himself haunted art across the continent. Always a popular theme in the middle ages, it nevertheless adapted from primarily religious art into paintings of plague and the always unsettling Danse Macabre, depictions of the dead dancing, often with the living. By the early sixteenth century, however, the Danse Macabre theme had progressed into something far creepier.
Death was no longer so much dancing with the woman as embracing her. The courtly dance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had taken an erotic turn, and now Death was kissing, fondling, and all but making love to women in art across Europe. The progression can be seen in two works of art from the Swiss artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Dance of Death and Death and the Maiden:
That escalated quickly.
The theme of Death and the Maiden was nothing new. The Greeks and Romans had their own version in the story of Persephone, kidnapped by and eventually married to Hades, the god of the underworld. While Hades has been presented at turns as a handsome goth, an old man with a beard, or bafflingly, a purple cartoon character, he is often used to represent death, a man being ever so slightly more appealing than the skeletons in Deutsch’s work.
It’s interesting to note that although there are many artistic renderings on the theme of the Rape of Persephone, it isn’t clear in Ovid’s Metamorphoses whether this rape was literal or just referring to her abduction. Nevertheless, Persephone married Hades and ruled over the Underworld by his side, and many traditions depict them as happily married and, atypically for the gods of Olympus, monogamous.
So why did Death fancy young women rather than knights or minstrels? There are a couple of different theories. Death may serve as a reminder not only of mortality, but of the inevitable passage of time. As we see skeletons embracing young women, we understand that youth and beauty cannot last forever. Alternatively, the sexualization of Death can be read as a warning, given how many women died in childbirth during the middle ages. (Art or the most intense abstinence-only program ever? You decide.)
It could also be the artists wanted to paint pretty girls in various states of undress. You know, because art.
As for the maidens in these paintings, they really vary. While some of them submit to Death’s grasp with all the enthusiasm of an awkward hug from a bad blind date, many of them embrace him with passion. Is it fate, a metaphor, or a macabre exaggeration of the kind of man a young woman ought to avoid?
While we may not be able to ask Deutsch and Grien what is was about 1517 that had them painting erotic pictures of skeletons fondling women, the theme proved to be a persistent one and enjoyed a resurgence in the romantic period of the late nineteenth century. Edvard Munch imagined a relationship dominated by the maiden in Death and Life, the sexual aggression of the Renaissance balanced with a rather sweet-looking kiss.
LeClaire, Lance David. 10 Grim Themes of Death in Western Art.
Pollefeyes, Patrick. Jeune Fille et la Mort, La Mort Dans l’Art.