Odds and quads

In the gruesome or grimly comic medieval Dance of Death, skeletons or decaying corpses are depicted rounding up the living.

August 25, 2011

Although the earliest known example is a mural in a Parisian church dating from the 1420s, the motif achieved wider renown in the woodcuts of the German artist and printmaker, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).

More recently, it has often been exploited for satirical effect. In Richard Dagley's Death's Doings (18), a rather foppish Grim Reaper has taken up contemporary sport and delivers the fatal blow as a boxing champion.

Thomas Rowlandson's English Dance of Death (1815-16), meanwhile, shows a husband - the accompanying verse tells us he has his eye on the chambermaid - delighted to see Death carting off his virago of a wife.

It is not known what made a doctor called William Gemmell (1859-1919) put together 76 examples of the Dance of Death, but he bequeathed them to the University of Glasgow, where they form the basis for one of the library's smallest but most unusual Special Collections. They have since been supplemented by further original works and secondary sources on the same theme.

Send suggestions for this series on the treasures, oddities and curiosities owned by universities across the world to: matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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