This colourful illustration is from the French printed book known as ‘la Danse Macabre'. Though it is an incunable (printed before 1501), it is shelved at Lambeth Palace Library in the manuscript sequence as MS 279.
This Parisian book from 1492 features 35 large hand-coloured illustrations of death dancing hand in hand with various ‘vifs', or living persons, as he leads them to their grave. The people represent all sectors of society starting from the Pope and an Emperor down to a child.
The Danse Macabre theme, or ‘Dance of Death', was a popular variant of the larger Memento Mori (‘Remember you must die') genre of art in the Middle Ages and could be found on cemetery walls, books, frescoes, and canvases throughout Europe. The aim was to remind the viewer that death will eventually come for all no matter their station in life as in our image where Death uniformly leads each character into the next world.
The Memento Mori genre had its roots in antiquity but gained speed in late medieval Christian art where it adopted a moralising tone. Death highlighted the temporary nature of this life, trivialising personal gain and luxury as well as personal achievement. It encouraged reflection on the magnitude the afterlife and how even a fleeting moment of sin in this life could lead to an eternity of torture in the next. Examples of Momento Mori include cadaver tombs such as that of Archbishop Chichele at Canterbury Cathedral and the use of symbolic skulls in paintings such as Holbein's The Ambassadors.
Lambeth Palace's Danse Macabre text is also interesting as a bibliographical artefact from the crossover period between manuscript and printed book. It was printed in Paris by Gillet Couteau and Jean Menard for Antoine Vérard, a publisher and bookmaker with several printers working under him. He was known for printing both cheaper paper books with woodcut illustrations as well as fine vellum hand-illuminated copies, often of the same book, for more wealthy clients. Our ornate copy, printed on vellum, would certainly have belonged to the latter category.
For conservation reasons, access to this manuscript is limited, but it can be viewed in full on microfilm to any visitors of the library with a valid reader's ticket.