The Dance of Death at Hexham Abbey

On my recent visit to Hexham Abbey in Northumberland, I came across a number of painted panels within the church which had amazingly survived the Reformation. Behind the lectern are four in particular that caught my eye. They are collectively called the Dance of Death, and show a macabre-looking skeleton dancing about four prominent characters- a cardinal, a king, an emperor and a pope. In the fifteenth century when the paintings were made, these would be some of the most important people on the continent. Yet here is Mr Death, a-jigging about them as he might the poor peasant working their fields.

The artist is making a number of points here: death is no respecter of persons, and comes to us all. You might have been important and powerful in your prime, but you will be levelled and brought low like everyone else.

He’s also pleading with us to consider the brevity of our own lives. You and I will not be here forever. Therefore enjoy life while you still may, but also plan for and prepare for what happens thereafter. Even popes and cardinals, from whom one might have expected piety, must consider carefully their eternal destinations. Mortality respects neither rank nor office.

The third point is more subtle. The skeleton points to the pope’s crown on the final panel. This crown, known as the triple tiara, represents the pontiff’s authority in heaven, earth and hades. Is the skeleton being ironic, insomuch as the very pope that claims authority over hades will himself end up there, as weak and powerless and they that went before? Perhaps this is why reformers and puritans left the panels alone- the artist shared their views on the deceitfulness of popes’ and cardinals’ claims to spiritual authority.

Kings and emperors may not make such lofty claims over the souls of men but they still expected their obedience and loyalty. Their courts judged the deeds of their subjects; their strategies and wars sent thousands to the grave. Yet they too are being stalked by the grinning spectre of the dancing skeleton. Their days are numbered and their authority will come to an end.

Hexham Abbey is a queer place. In many respects it is a time warp to a pre-Protestant age. Regardless of time’s passage, the skeletal death-dance continues apace.