The typical form which the allegory takes is that of a series of pictures, sculptured or painted, 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. The number of characters and the composition of the dance may vary according to time, place and purpose of the artist, 24 being a popular figure
The dances of death are to be found on the outside walls of cloisters, cemeteries, in mortuary chapels, ossuaries and even in churches. Of the numerous examples painted or sculptured through medieval Europe few remain except in woodcuts and engravings.
The dance of death often takes the form of a farandole. There are words exchanged between death and its victims which are painted as verses below the corresponding pictures. The death speech is threatening , cynical, or sacarstic while the man cries for mercy in a last attempt to save his life. Everyone gets into the dance: from the whole clerical hierarchy (pope, cardinals, bishops, abbots, canons, priests), to every single representative of the laic world (emperors, kings, dukes, counts, knights, doctors, merchants, usurers, robbers, peasants, and even innocent children). Death does not care for the social position, nor for the richness, sex, or age of the people it brings into its dance.
Death is often represented with a musical instrument. Music has always been associated with the various death and life rituals. Music provides an enchantment, the passage from Earth to the unknown. The Sirens were great musicians, Orpheus delivered Eurydice from Hades thanks to his beautiful songs.
The "Dance of Death" was also a species of spectacular play. The oldest traces of these plays are found in Germany, but we have the Spanish text for a similar dramatic performance dating back to the year 1360, "La Danza General de la Muerte". We read of similar dramatic representations in Bruges before Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1449.
In the Middle-Ages, the dance of death was both a warning for powerful men, a comfort to the poor, and ultimately an invitation to lead a responsible and christian life. But its basic idea is even more simpler, more timeless: to recall the shortness of life. It makes men remember that they all will die, without exception and that a grim saraband of skeletons, lurks around to take them away.
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 Triumph of Death, attributed to Orcagna, in the Campo Santo at Pisa.
The dance of death of the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris, painted in 1424, is considered the starting point of this pictural tradition. The theme of Death seizing all men from emperors to peasants became popular during all the 15th century and there were numerous dances of death painted across Europe. Unfortunately, few have survived the centuries. There are also traces of theatral plays that were played in the same fashion. Different traditions converge in the origin of these Dances: beliefs, popular legends and pious or scholar sources.
The dance of death was preceded and prepared by a literary genre called Vado Mori (I prepare myself to die) in vogue during the 13th century. They includes short sentences (like haiku) of people from various strolls of life who are going to die. The most popular were the king, the pope, the bishop, the knight, the physicist, the logician, the young man, the old man, the rich, the poor and the insane.
In the 15th century, there was also a poetic genre in Spain that featured dialogs between death and human characters. The most famous, Dança generale de la Muerte, includes 33 characters. Of the many engraved reproductions, the most famous is the series drawn by Holbein.
In the nineteenth century the motif is reenergized by revolution and social upheaval, and heralds the arrival of a social fantastic with Alfred Rethel’s great series. 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. In the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film The Seventh Seal has a personified Death, and could thus count as macabre.