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Merry Macabre art from Danse Macabre to Día de los Muertos...

The Endearing Catrina and Calavera of Mexico, Inspired by the Danse Macabre.

-By Carmen Zavislake

What do the Black Plague of the Medieval era, the printing press, and Posada's macabre folk art have to do with each other? Well, keep reading and find out more...

As long as 60,000 years ago, at intentional burials such as Shanidar Cave in Iraq, and Kebara Cave in Iraq, Neanderthals used red ochre to represent the perpetuity of the spark of life, hoping their loved one feel it's warmth and would return one day. These are considered by palaeoantropologists as the first funerals, grave goods of carved bone flutes, stone axes, and flowers as offerings, these traditions of veneration of the dearly departed dead are as old as our ancestors.

In some cultures, death is part of daily life and the bones of the ancestors who have departed in the flesh still play a daily part of familiarl life, such as in the ancient Neolithic Chinese culture of Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), where death was artfully and beautifully integrated, as shown in the covered clay mortuary vessels called Hus, and incredible earthenware tomb figures of chimeras, dragons, animal and human shapes.

Citipati skull Tibet.jpg

IMAGE: Engraved human skull from Tibet with the dancing Lord and Lady of the Cemetery, found on Pintrest.

The skull as a symbol of death, and the actual bones and skull of a beloved ancestor were placed on an altar and consulted on an often daily basis, their presense still felt in daily life. The bones often used as an object of divination, or merely revered as sacred, or an actual memento mori.

IMAGE: Roman era mosaic of Death holding wine jugs, from Parenthetically's UK blogspot.

In the mystical Bon and Vajrayana rituals found in the Buddhism of India, Nepal, and Tibet, the dead body itself is transformed into a sacred ritual object: the human skull made into cups called kapala, the ancestors thigh bones (the femur) are made into flutes called rkang dung. India and Indonesian tantric rituals use a skull bowl called a kapala. Death deities such as the Black Goddess, Kali, and the lord and lady of the cemetry Citipati dancing skeletons are universally representative of Death intertwining with life.


IMAGE: Citipati, the Lord and Lady of the Charnel Grounds, from WilderUtopia website.


IMAGE: Death tarot card.

Although macabre art is as old as death itself, but the stylization of the dancing, festive skeleton that is unique to the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, it's inspirations go father back to the bleakest time in human history, the era of the Black Plague, where the plague wiped out two-thirds of the population and the danse macabre becomes all the rage.

Yersinias pestis, aka The Bubonic Plague spread by the lowly rat flea which has likely existed as long as humanity, records document that outbreaks occured killing millions of peopls in the Roman Empire and in the 6th Century Byzantine Empire. The most catastrophic was the 14th Century outbreak in Europe, which is believed to have originated in Mongolia in the 1330s and spread along the Caffa, Crimea along the Silk Road trade routes by boat from the Black Sea around 1346, then outward from Venice.

Estimated to have killed more than half the human population of Europe in a less than a generation, but taking centuries to recover, the Black Death changed humanity forever. To put this into perspective, here are some specifics:

“Consequences of the Black Death included a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, peaking in Europe between 1347 and 1350 with 30–60 percent of the entire population killed. It reduced world population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in the 14th century. It took 150 and in some areas more than 250 years for Europe's population to recover.” (SOURCE: Wikipedia)

Death, the new obsession, as a way of dealing with the catastrophic grief, and phobic exposure, people did not want to be taken unaware, nor be unfamiliar with what inevitably would come. From the entertaining and highly informative "Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween" by Lisa Morton, states:

"In 1346, the Black Death...the plague and the printing press were both spreading, and soon, images of the Danse Macabre featuring gruesome skeletal figures became widely available to the surviving population."


IMAGE: Danse Macabre mystery play from a Medieval manuscript.

The Danse Macabre became widespread during the plague, originally a mystery play, people sought to cleanse their sins in case of an untimely death. There is a great blog on the danse macabre and the Apocalypse by Gina Hamilton:

"Visual representations show Death, usually the grim reaper or a skeleton, leading a group of people in a jerky dance to an open grave. The people come from all walks of life - priests and cardinals, gentlefolk and royalty, peasants and sailors, children and infants."

In 1493, the Dance of Death marks a new beginning for Post-Plague Europe's mindset, fears, obsession, and spirit of the times. This Wolgemut etching marks the beginning of this kind of art.


IMAGE: "Dance of Death" by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarium - Hartmann Schedel, from Wikipedia.

Hans Holbein the Younger, thanks to the invention of the printing press, made his macabre woodcuts available throughout Europe, and soon became ubiquitous, especially his "Dance of Death: The Duchess" from the larger series 1523-5.

The Duchess & 2 Skeletons 1526.jpg

IMAGE: Dance of Death series, from the British Museum.

The famous "calavera" is Spanish for skull, and there is only one Mexican folk artist, political illustrator/cartoonist who possessed the skill to create mose whimsical, endeading images of death in the world, his name is José Guadalupe Posada, born February 2nd, 1852 and died January 20th, 1913. His mastery of printmaking, and engraving skills are unmatched in both quantity and prowess.


A celebration of the dark, endaring, whimsical, macabre srt of José Guadalupe Posada (1852 - 1813) must begin with the Catrina, the icon he created in 1910-1913. Diego Rivera's introduction in the Posada: Monografia print monograph collection, first published in 1930. Rivera sums both the enduring charm of Mexican folk art, as well as, the incredible genius of Posada's work:

“The plastic values of Posada’s work are the most essential and the most permanent of a work of art.”

“Posada’s composition, which is strangely dynamic, maintains, nevertheless, the greatest equilibrium of chiaroscuro in relation to the dimension of the engraving.”

“Equilibrium, as much as the movement, is the greatest quality of classical Mexican art; that is, of pre-Conquest art.”

“Another trait of Mexican classical art is the love of character and the terrible and droll use of death converted into a plastic element.” Dictionary definition for plastic is that which is shaped while soft then dries into a rigid form.

“Posada: Death that has converted itself into a calavera, who quarrels, gets drunk, weeps and dances.”

“Familiar death, transformed into a cardboard figure, moved by pulling a string.”

“Death in the form of sugar skulls; death to whet the children’s appetites, while the grown-ups fight and are shot down or strung up dangling from ropes.”

“Death in the form of a dandy, who dances the fandango and accompanies us to bewail the dead in the cemeteries, eating mole or drinking pulque at the graves of our dead.”


IMAGE: Detail of Catrina by Posada, the grande dame herself of day of the dead, her broad rimmed hat embellished with regal feathers and marigolds, the flower of the dead.

Dia de los Muertos celebrations have altar and grave-side offerings of marigolds, candles, and bread to their loved ones. Marigolds and mariposas the flowers on her hat, symbolizing immortality. The point is to not be sad, not to be morose and solemn about the thought of dying, no one gets out alive, so don't stress it, and celebrate with those you love and remember those who have passed on to the Otherworld because someday you will join them.

By artistically changing the way society looks at Death, by making Death less terrifying by making it a dancing adorable skeleton is brilliant, it is really exposure therapy and how can we be afraid of something cute and endearing like the calaveras...or perhaps think of it as the final seductive surrender to the embrace of Death, a chance to become part of everything and return to the elemental particles from whence we all come and return.

The message of the danse macabre, the calaveras and catrina, and perhaps the purpose of the Tibetan 49 day vigil wake:

"Stop and smell the both the cadavers and the flowers, so that you may enjoy your life to the fullest - each second of each day!!!"

Here is a poem to leave you with, Day of the Dead, which I wrote it a long time ago, but this seems the perfect place to share it:

Day of the Dead

Light a candle for the dead,

Remember friends, let memories

Swirl and resound within your head.

Think of the times and of the years,

In a trance of revere, swell

And overflow in a flood of tears.

Do not fight it, let the tears trickle down,

To touch the ancient soil

Of the burial grounds.

Now they lay peacefully, life has passed,

No more woe or toil, the spell is cast.

The infant spirits linger where they once lived.

Look to the stars that cry out in vain,

Knowing in time you will not remain.

So, revive and light another candle for the dead.

Be not vanquished, for when your time comes,

The wick is burned and prayers fly,

To sing to you a spirit lullaby.

-By Carmen Zavislake

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