In works of art, the adjective macabre (US: /məˈkɑːb/ or UK: /məˈkɑːbrə/; French: [makabʁ]) means "having the quality of having a grim or ghastly atmosphere". The macabre works to emphasize the details and symbols of death. The term also refers to works particularly gruesome in nature.
Early traces of macabre can be found in Ancient Greek and Latin writers such as the Roman writer Petronius, author of the Satyricon (late 1st century CE), and the Numidian writer Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass (late 2nd century CE). Outstanding instances of macabre themes in English literature include the works of John Webster, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mervyn Peake, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Thomas Hardy, and Cyril Tourneur. In American literature, authors whose work feature this quality include Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King. The word has gained its significance from its use in French as la danse macabre for the allegorical representation of the ever-present and universal power of death, known in German as Totentanz and later in English as the Dance of the Dead. The typical form which the allegory takes is that of a series of images in which Death appears, either as a dancing skeleton or as a shrunken shrouded corpse, to people representing every age and condition of life, and leads them all in a dance to the grave. Of the numerous examples painted or sculptured on the walls of cloisters or church yards through medieval Europe, few remain except in woodcuts and engravings.
- The series at Basel originally at the Klingenthal, a nunnery in Little Basel, dated from the beginning of the 14th century. In the middle of the 15th century this was moved to the churchyard of the Predigerkloster at Basel, and was restored, probably by Hans Kluber, in 1568. The collapse of the wall in 1805 reduced it to fragments, and only drawings of it remain.
- A Dance of the Dead in its simplest form still survives in the Marienkirche at Lübeck as 15th-century painting on the walls of a chapel. Here there are 24 figures in couples, between each is a dancing Death linking the groups by outstretched hands, the whole ring being led by a Death playing on a pipe.
- In Tallinn (Reval), Estonia there is a well-known Danse Macabre painting by Bernt Notke displayed at St. Nikolaus Church (Niguliste), dating the end of 15th century.
- At Dresden there is a sculptured life-size series in the old Neustädter Kirchhoff, moved here from the palace of Duke George in 1701 after a fire.
- At Rouen in the cloister of St Maclou there also remains a sculptured danse macabre.
- There was a celebrated fresco of the subject in the cloister of Old St Pauls in London.
- There was another in the now destroyed Hungerford Chapel at Salisbury, of which only a single woodcut, "Death and the Gallant", remains.
- Of the many engraved reproductions of the Old St Pauls fresco, the most famous is the series drawn by Holbein.
The theme continued to inspire artists and musicians long after the medieval period, Schubert's string quartet Death and the Maiden (1824) being one example, and Camille Saint-Saëns' tone poem Danse macabre, op. 40 (1847).
In the 20th century, Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film The Seventh Seal has a personified Death, and could thus count as macabre.
The origin of this allegory in painting and sculpture is disputed. It occurs as early as the 14th century, and has often been attributed to the overpowering consciousness of the presence of death due to the Black Death and the miseries of the Hundred Years' War. It has also been attributed to a form of the Morality, a dramatic dialogue between Death and his victims in every station of life, ending in a dance off the stage. The origin of the peculiar form the allegory has taken has also been found in the dancing skeletons on late Roman sarcophagi and mural paintings at Cumae or Pompeii, and a false connection has been traced with the fresco Trionfo della Morte ("Triumph of Death"), painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Buonamico Buffalmacco (c. 1330s–1350, disputed), and currently preserved in the Campo Santo of Pisa.
The etymology of the word "macabre" is uncertain. According to Gaston Paris, French scholar of Romance studies, it first occurs in the form "macabree" in a poem, Respit de la mort (1376), written by the medieval Burgundian chronicler Jean Le Fèvre de Saint-Remy:
Je fis de Macabree la dance,
Qui toute gent maine a sa trace
Et a la fosse les adresse.
The more usual explanation is based on the Latin name, Machabaeorum chorea ("Dance of the Maccabees"). The seven tortured brothers, with their mother and Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6 and 7) are prominent figures in the dramatic dialogues. Other connections have been suggested, as for example with St. Macarius the Great, an Egyptian Coptic monk and hermit who is to be identified with the figure pointing to the decaying corpses in the fresco Trionfo della Morte ("Triumph of Death") painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Buonamico Buffalmacco, according to the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari; or with the Arabic word maqābir (مقابر, plural of maqbara) which means "cemeteries".
- Body horror
- Black Death in medieval culture
- Danse Macabre, medieval allegory on the universality of death
- Danse macabre, tone poem written in 1874 by Camille Saint-Saëns
- Horror fiction
- Memento mori, symbolic trope acting as a reminder of the inevitability of death
- ^ a b Bellosi, Luciano (2000). Come un prato fiorito. Studi sull'arte tardogotica. Di fronte e attraverso. Storia dell'arte (in Italian). Milan: Jaca Book. p. 9. ISBN 9788816404335.
- ^ a b Aavitsland, Kristin B. (2012). "Mortis Memoria: To Remember One's Death". Imagining the Human Condition in Medieval Rome: The Cistercian fresco cycle at Abbazia delle Tre Fontane. Routledge (1st ed.). London and New York: Routledge. pp. 131–132. ISBN 9781138273078. LCCN 2011050166.
- ^ "Roald Dahl Day: From Tales of the Unexpected to Switch Bitch, Dahl's undervalued stories for adults". The Independent. 14 October 2017.
- ^ See Du Cange, Gloss., s.v. Machabaeorum chora.
- ^ a b Paris, Gaston (1895). Meyer, Paul; Paris, Gaston (eds.). "La Dance Macabré de Jean Le Fèvre". Romania (in French). Paris: Librairie Droz, on behalf of the Société des amis de la Romania. 24 (93): 129–132. doi:10.3406/roma.1895.5871. eISSN 2391-1018. ISSN 0035-8029. JSTOR 45042550. Retrieved 21 September 2022.
- ^ The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Fifth edition; 2002) states that the origin of "macabre" perhaps has reference to "a miracle play containing the slaughter of the Maccabees." Volume 1, p. 1659.