Visitor Guide 7: Dance of Death

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Panel paintings, on a single piece of wood or a number of pieces joined together, were the norm before canvas became the more popular in the 16th century.

Hexham Abbey houses one of the largest collections of medieval wooden panel paintings in the country, as many other collections within churches did not survive the reformation under Henry VIII.  

The most famous series in our collection is the ‘Dance of Death’.  Dating from the 15th century, this is a prime example of this ornate artwork.  The Dance of Death can be seen in the four lower panels to the left of the altar, behind the pulpit used for preaching.  Please do be careful on the stone steps as you make your way up to have a closer look. 

They show Death as a gruesome skeleton wielding a sickle. He dances, in turn, before a cardinal, a king, an emperor and a pope. This was a common medieval theme, emphasising the irrelevance of rank and power in the face of universal human mortality.

This style emerged as an art form in Europe, when plague, war and death were rife across the population.  For the canons who contemplated these images, they did not seem sinister, but more of a reminder of mortality and equality in the eyes of God.

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