The last dance

A skeletal figure appears in front of a blind man. It cuts the man’s dog lead and takes hold of his walking stick, leaving the blind man to step straight into his own open grave.

In the shadows of a nun’s bedchamber another bony figure snuffs out the woman’s candlelight. The nun doesn’t notice as she’s distracted by the musical male visitor perched at her bedside.

A young child waves to his distressed mother and older brother as he’s led by a skeleton out of his home. The skeleton hold aloft an hourglass; the child’s time, though short, is up.

A group of drunkards in a tavern over-indulging to the point of sickness are oblivious to another menacing visitor serving the alcohol.

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The message? Death comes to us all.

Over the next month, Central Library offers a rare opportunity to see one of our most fascinating (and grotesque!) holdings: the Dance of Death Collection. Emily Wilkinson, a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, has been researching the Dance of Death Collection for the past year, and her work has culminated in both a physical and a virtual exhibition on the subject.

The Dance of Death Collection was donated to Central Library in the 1940s by one of our patrons, Charles Boog Watson. The collection is incredibly diverse and includes over forty books dating from 1542 to 1934. Volumes are illustrated with woodcuts, etchings, or engravings designed or executed by one of a number of artists including Hans Holbein the Younger, David Deuchar, Wenceslaus Hollar, Matthäus Merian and Christian de Mechel.

In spite of their differences, however, the books are united thematically; they all relate to a medieval artistic tradition, the Dance of Death. They depict members of society from all strata being met by Death and thus by their demise, reminding us all that ultimately we share the same fate.

Visit the Dance of Death exhibition on the Mezzanine at Central Library from 2nd to 30th October 2013 and view the online version at Capital Collections.

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