TOTENTANZ, THE DANCE OF DEATH

Sori, 4 July 2021

During this year’s week-long hike in the Dolomites (which I also mentioned in passing in my previous post), I managed to squeeze in a visit to the parish church of Sesto (or Sexten, to give its German name; we are in Sud Tirol, after all). Let me repeat here a message I have tried to pass in previous posts: always visit every church you come across in Europe, no matter how small it is, because there is a good chance that you will discover an artistic gem (or two). The church in Sesto / Sexten was no exception.

The church itself was OK – it had some interesting frescoes on the ceiling.

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But what really made the visit worth while was the cemetery. My wife will tell you that I have a morbid streak, and indeed I don’t deny having a certain preoccupation with death – a preoccupation which, naturally enough I think, is growing with age. But cemeteries do also often contain wonderful art, as people try to lessen the pain caused by the departure of loved ones and reduce the fear of death itself through art. Things started with a bang at the entrance to the cemetery, which took the form of a small circular pavilion reached by a covered staircase from the road.

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The ceiling of the pavilion was adorned with a Totentanz, or Dance of Death (danza macabra in Italian). This type of artistic depiction flourished in Europe during the 15th and 16th Centuries, probably in response to the Black Death and the lesser outbreaks of the plague which continued to periodically sweep through the continent. They were a form of memento mori, a reminder to us that we must all die sooner or later: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”. I came across a typical example of the form several years ago, in a church in Milan.

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The phrase on the left says “I was what you are”, while the one on the right says “You will be what I am” (I emailed the photo to a dear friend of mine as an attachment to a lighthearted note; he died a year later – death catches us all, some of us sooner than later).

Dances of Death were different because they stressed that Death was the Great Leveller: whatever your social position, however powerful you were, you could not hide from Death. I suppose this idea was thrown into sharp relief by the Plague: here was a disease which made no distinctions, remorselessly scything down rich and poor, powerful and powerless, old and young, sick and healthy. And so Dances of Death would depict men and women – and children – from all ranks of society and all walks of life dancing with, being embraced by, skeletons. Here are typical examples of the genre.

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In the earlier versions, each person would be accompanied by a short poem, often written in an ironic tone, commenting on him or her and their incipient death. And the skeletons would be quite jolly, not only dancing but frolicking about.

Even though the example on the ceiling of that pavilion in the cemetery of Sesto / Sexten was quite modern – it was painted soon after the First World War – its author, Rudolf Stolz, followed the traditional iconography quite faithfully. Thus, we have a ruler.

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He is accompanied by a rhyming couplet in German, which states (in my rather free translation)
“The sands have run out,
Lay aside your scepter.”
The skeleton is holding an hourglass, so we can interpret these couplets as something the skeletons are saying to their charges.

Then we have a mature woman, a “matron” as they used to be called.

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Her skeleton is saying to her
“Woman, your devotions are over
Idly burns your candle”
To make the point, it pinches the candle’s wick. Like many a matron in a village like Sesto, she must have been a regular churchgoer.

Next we have a mature man, no doubt a local farmer, dressed the way locals would have dressed until quite recently.

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With a scythe slung over its shoulder, his skeleton is intoning
“Your virility, your creativity
Cut like grass by a stroke of my scythe”

He is followed by the most poignant of the depictions, that of a baby.

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The skeleton is crooning to the baby
“Sleep, my angel, sleep sweetly
You’ll awake in paradise”
At a time when the death of babies and children was still quite common, I can only hope that this painting was of some comfort to grieving mothers on their way to tend the graves of their children.

On goes the dance! We move on to a young man.

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His friendly skeleton, bony arm wrapped around his shoulder, is telling him
“Not so sad, young blood
Go homewards with cheerful heart”
Presumably “homewards” in this context means home to the kingdom of God.

Which brings us to a young woman.

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Her skeleton is telling her
“Fair maiden with the myrtle wreath
Follow me to the wedding dance”
And indeed the skeleton seems to be about to start the kind of square dance that was common in these parts. But no doubt it is referring to a wedding with Death.

And so we come to the final character, a bishop.

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His skeleton is telling him
“Bishop with the shepherd’s crook
Set aside your heavy burden”
and is helpfully taking away his crosier (his crook), no doubt as a first step in divesting him of his other accoutrements.

When I saw this Dance of Death, I was immediately reminded of another Dance of Death which recently went under the hammer at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna, a version of Albin Egger-Lienz’s “Totentanz 1809”.

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The affinity between these paintings is no surprise. As his name indicates, Egger-Lienz was born just down the road from Sesto / Sexten, in Lienz, now in Austria. Most of the themes of his paintings were Tyrolese. Rudolf Stolz was a great fan of his.

Suitably reminded of my own approaching demise, I passed into the cemetery itself. Tyrolese cemeteries are a joy to visit. Each grave is a little garden, carefully tended by relatives. This one was particularly well kept, and the view on the Dolomites of Sesto was magnificent.

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In addition, the crosses over the graves are often masterpieces of ironwork. I throw in a few examples I came across.

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I have to assume that all those flowery curlicues are to remind the Christian viewer that the wooden cross is the bearer of (eternal) life, rather like a stick which – when stuck in the ground – sprouts leaves.

Behind the first cross you can see an example of the frescoes that are painted on some of the cemetery’s family tombs. Rudolf and his two brothers Albert and Ignaz painted a good number of these (Albert also painted the frescoes on the ceiling of the church). I rather like this fresco by Ignaz Stolz, a nice take on the story of the Sermon on the Mount.

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In the end, though, I rather preferred the sculptures in wood – another great art form in the Tirol; not surprising, given the wealth of wood here – that adorned some of the family tombs.

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I’m not sure I would want a sculpture on my family tomb strongly suggesting that I would be burning in Hell …

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The story of the women coming to the grave of Jesus to prepare him, only to find an angel sitting at the mouth of the tomb.

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A pietà.

Yes, if I am finally laid to rest in a cemetery – which is not a given; cremation is a strong possibility – I think a Tyrolese grave, surrounded by mountain flowers, will do me very well. And I want a brass band to see me off! Once, many years ago, when I was convalescing at home after a knee operation, my wife took me for a spin through the countryside around Vienna. Quite by chance, we came across a funeral procession that had just reached the village cemetery. We stopped to watch. Suddenly, the sombre silence was broken by a duet between trumpet and trombone. What a way to go, to the sound of brass!

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I have often told my wife of this desire, but I suspect she has been dismissing it as an emanation of the Monty-Pythonesque side of me, not to be taken seriously. But really, what better way to say that that final goodbye than through the booming notes of a brass band? Since she and I like jazz so much, maybe she could fly in one of those New Orleans funeral bands. Now that would be something!

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THE EASTERN FRONT

Vienna, 5 November 2020

It’s been many years since my wife and I have been in Vienna in November – 12,  to be exact; I have to go back to the year before we left for China. Like many things which have been done differently this year, the cause lies in Covid. Had it not been for that damned virus, we would have flown to Japan in early October for my teaching course, and we would have flown back to Milan in late October. As it is, constrained by the “new normal”, I am giving my course online, from my living room.

I see, though, that one advantage of being here in Vienna during the month of November is that I can continue my annual habit of memorializing the end of the First World War. But this time, rather than writing about the Western Front with which I am more familiar, I can write about the fronts in which the Austro-Hungarian Empire was involved, principally the Eastern Front.

Not that I know terribly much about the war on the Eastern Front, which was for the most part a war between the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, on one side, and the Russians, on the other. I have bought books on the subject over the years, but by a twist of Fate those books are down in Milan: all the books which we put into storage when we left for China went to Milan and all the books which we bought in China have ended up here in Vienna, and of course I bought books on the Eastern Front when we lived in Vienna before going to China.

So little do I know about the war in this part of the world that I got the date of the ceasefire between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Allies wrong. I thought it was on 7 November and was planning to post on that day, but actually it was on 3 November, so this post is actually two days late.

I’ve read that the Eastern Front was so long – it stretched all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, so some 1,600 km – that trench warfare never really developed there. The density of soldiers along the Front was much lower than it was along the Western Front, so it was easier to break through the enemy’s lines, and then once a breakthrough was made it was difficult to stop it because the very sparse lines of communication made it difficult to rush the necessary reinforcements to plug the hole in the line. The result was a much more fluid Front.

That’s as may be, but a few years ago I took pity on a very faded aquarelle by the Austrian painter Rudolf Weber, an official War artist for Austro-Hungary, which was on sale at the Dorotheum Auction House. Its subject was a scene from 1916 on the Eastern Front, in Galicia to be precise. I felt that I owed it to the men who died there to give the aquarelle a decent home. It now hangs on the wall, in the shadows to protect it from the light. Although the colours are bleached, you can see a trench snaking across what appears to be a high plateau.

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Weber must have been capturing a moment just after a local skirmish. In the lower left-hand corner one can make out dead soldiers lying on the edge of the trench as well as in it.

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So there must have been some trench warfare on the Eastern Front.

What happened to those dead soldiers, I wonder? I suppose most of them must have been buried close to the front, just as they were on the Western Front. But are there military cemeteries like those lovely, well tended cemeteries that we see on the Western Front?

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I fear not. The Eastern Front runs through the modern-day countries of Latvia, Poland, Bielorussia, Ukraine, and Romania. A number of these countries suffered through the Russian Revolution and its many years of chaotic aftermath. Then this whole region was embroiled in the incredibly bitter fighting of the Second World War. I suspect that whatever military cemeteries were created along the Eastern Front vanished in the decades that followed.

Even if they had existed, they would have been too far away from Austria for most parents to visit and mourn over the graves of their dead sons. The Eastern Front was some 600 km away from Vienna at its nearest point, and as we’ve seen the means of communication we’re not good in that region.

Where did parents mourn their dead sons, then? I suppose they had to make do with the war memorials that dot every Austrian town and village (memorials that a mere 25 years later were lengthened, sometimes by a good deal, through the addition of the names of those who died in the Second World War).

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And what of the grand public memorials, by which the warring States memorialized the citizens which they sent to the slaughter? Austria has two. It has a War Memorial, erected in 1925 in the Central Cemetery, which is not central at all, being located on the edges of the city.

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And it has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been placed within the building of the old city gates that give access to the old Imperial Palace, the Hofburg.

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Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I can’t help but wonder if the locations of these two monuments reflect the differing political contexts of the years in which they were built. Of course, there is a logic in having a memorial to the war dead in a cemetery, but in 1925 the elites were struggling to make a go of the new democratic Republic of Austria. Perhaps these politicians didn’t want any reminder too near the centres of power of the war which destroyed the Empire, leaving them with a small runt of a country to run: better to tuck it away in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. By 1934, however, Austria was effectively a Fascist dictatorship, and no doubt the elites of this dictatorship wanted a monument glorifying the valiant “warriors” who fought and died for the fatherland in that war. Thus are monuments used to project political ideas.

The First World War spawned a slew of war poetry and war art in the UK and, to a lesser degree, in France, which wrestled with the moral outrage of this war. Did the same thing happen in Austria? I cannot judge if Austrians created any war poetry (I know the Germans did; I have translations of some of it). As for war art, few if any of the well-known Austrian artists who lived through the war seem to have produced anything war-related. Egon Schiele painted a few portraits of the Russian POWs that he was in contact with (because of his weak heart and his excellent handwriting, Schiele was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp).

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Gustav Klimt doesn’t seem to have created any war paintings – but then he was not personally involved in the war effort. Oskar Kokoschka, who actually fought on the Eastern Front, seems to have created only one painting, Knight Errant, with the war as its theme, but I find it too heavy on the symbolism for my taste.

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The same with Alfred Kubin, who seems to have only created this illustration, End of the War from 1918 – but, like Klimt, he was too old and had no direct experience of the fighting.

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Only Albin Egger-Lienz seems to have created some great war paintings. Here is his painting The Nameless.

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Every time I see it, I am reminded of a commentary I read on the American Civil War, about an attack by Unionist troops on a Confederate-held fort. As they ran towards the fort, the soldiers leaned forward as if running against a strong hailstorm – which in a way they were, although it was a hail of lead rather than of ice.

Here we have The Dead Soldier.

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This is Finale from 1918 (compare to Kubin’s lame attempt on the same theme).

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Egger-Lienz was also sensitive to the havoc the war wrought on home life. Here is his painting War Women, the women left behind when the men left for the war.

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And here is his painting The Blind, his commentary on the mutilations meted out by the war.

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Otherwise, we have to go down a level, to artists who are not all that well known outside Austria. A number of these were official war artists like Rudolf Weber, others fought in the war. Here, in no particular order, are some of the better paintings (and drawings) which I found on the net.

Rudolf Höger’s Fight at Doberdo

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Höger was an official war artist and no doubt was trying to show the soldiers in a good light, as brave “warriors”. But all I see is the sheer brutish thugishness of it all.

Alfred Basel’s Fighting in the Carpathians

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Basel was also an official war artist. In a way, his subject is no different from Höger’s, yet it seems more of a ballet in his hands.

This other work by Basel, After the Breakthrough at Tagliamento, reminds me of the work of another war artist, C.R.W. Nevinson, about whom I’ve written an earlier post.

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A painting by Wilhelm Dachauer

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Dachauer was assigned to a medical team as an orderly. No doubt this subject was drawn from his experience.

Stephanie Hollenstein’s Dying Soldier

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Pretending to be a man, Hollenstein joined a rifle brigade in 1915. After a few months, her officers discovered the deception and threw her out. But she returned to the Front, this time as an official war artist. No doubt she drew this on one of her visits to the Front.

Robert Angerhofer’s Dead Soldier in Barbed Wire

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As these paintings show, soldiers suffered and died in the same way on the Eastern Front as they did on the Western Front. But if there is one thing that has always struck me living here is how little the Austrians commemorate their war dead compared to the UK. Are the Austrians trying to forget their past? Or is it simply that they have decided that they cannot forever lament the dead? I sometimes think the British commemorate their war dead too much, in the process glorifying war. That is not good. But I don’t think we can just blank out the death and suffering of millions. We owe it to them not to forget.  So I’m glad that, once again – although a little late in this case – I have spent some time this year remembering the millions who died or were maimed, physically and mentally, in the war that was meant to end all wars.