Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance

“The Skeleton Dance” is a short animated film produced by Walt Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks, Walt Disney, Les Clark, Roy O. Disney, and Wilfred Jackson.  It was released on the 22nd of August, 1929, and has become an iconic, classic animated short to watch during the Halloween season.  The total budget for the animation was $5,386, which calculates out to $72,886.44 if it had been produced in 2012.

Dancing skeletons, black cats, and other spooky, traditional Halloween imagery are used in the animation.  While we may watch the short and simply enjoy it for a sense of nostalgia, having seen it as children, or find the idea of skeletons dancing in a graveyard humorous and silly, the imagery in “The Skeleton Dance” has an extensive history in Western Art that dates back to the early 1400s.  It is a modern adaptation of the danse macabre, or “dance of death,” which commonly features skeletons dancing and other images of death.

The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, 1493, a woodcut illustration for the Liber Chronicarum. This is one of the most well known examples of a danse macabre.

The earliest danse macabre images appear in Paris and were dated to 1424-25.  Unfortunately, this mural at the Saints Innocents Cemetery was destroyed in 1669, when the charnier housing the mural was demolished to widen the road behind it.  These images appear only 75 years after the Black Death swept through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia absolutely decimating the population.  In Europe it is estimated that anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the population and anywhere form 75 to 200 million individuals worldwide perished during the 1300s.  A charnier is a structure built on a burial ground that typically housed the bodies of people that died during the cold winter months until they could be buried after the ground thawed in the Spring or Summer.

An illustration of what the charnier at Saints Innocents Cemetery, Paris, France, with the original danse macabre mural would have looked like during the 1400s to mid 1600s.

The people of the Late Medieval period in Western Europe lived in a world that was dark and full of death.  When these macabre images of dancing skeletons became popular, not only had they lived through the plague within recent memory, but they had also experienced a drastic change in climate with the Little Ice Age intensification during the early 1400s, recurring episodes of famine, and social unrest ran rampant through all of Europe.  During this period wars such as the Hundred Years War claimed around 3.5 million lives.

Medieval people lived in a world where death was an ever present and a pervasive entity.  Scholars believe that genres like danse macabre express the fact that sudden death was always just around the corner, thus heightening the need for religious penitence and constant preparation for death.  They also postulate that portraying images of death and skeletons dancing or doing other humorous activities allowed medieval people to gain some amusement where little was available.

Happy Halloween season, everyone!

The Abbot by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538, woodcut as part of his Dance of Death series.

To read more about the Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance: click here.

To read more about danse macabre imagery: click here.

To see a great gallery of medieval images of death: click here.

To read more about the crisis of the Late Middle Ages: click here.

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Painting Medium: Gouache

Gouache (goo-ah-sh or gwaush) is a lesser known painting medium, but has been in use since the 1300s in Europe.  Gouache is similar to watercolors in that it consists of pigment and binding agent (usually gum arabic) suspended in water.  However, gouache is opaque, with larger pigment particles than traditional watercolors, a higher pigment to water ratio, and added inert materials such as chalk.  The larger particles and higher pigment content gives gouache a smooth, velvety look with higher light reflective qualities than watercolors.  It is also known as opaque watercolor or bodycolor and is commonly used alongside watercolors to highlight certain parts of the painting.

Dragon Arum and Tortoiseshell Butterfly by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, circa 1580, watercolor and gouache on paper, Arader Galleries

Gouache as we know it was used as early as the 14th Century in Europe, but is more commonly seen from the 1500s and later.  We have historical examples of botanical illustrations from Europe, as well as illuminations from Indian manuscripts and paintings on cotton fabric from what is now Afghanistan.  In the 1800s Frederic Remington used gouache to create illustrations which were then sent to lithographers to copy the work for mass book printing.

Portrait of a Courier circa 1615, gouache on paper, originates from Bijapur, Deccan, India, housed at the British Museum

Claude Monet used pencil, watercolors, and gouache to create humorous drawings and caricatures.  Gouache is still prized by illustrators like Alex Ross and Syd Mead today for its smooth and rich qualities.

The Painter with a Pointed Hat by Claude Monet, circa 1857, watercolor and pencil highlighted with white gouache
Crossing Water to Escape a Prairie Fire by Frederic Remington, gouache on paper, Forsyth Galleries
Blade Runner Street Scene 3 (Blue) by Syd Mead, 1980-1981, gouache on illustration board
Wonder Woman illustration, plates 26-27 by Alex Ross, gouache on Strathmore watercolor bristol series 400 4 ply

Art Spotted: Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasp, Sutton Hoo

Shoulder clasp from the Mound 1 Sutton Hoo burial. Housed at the British Museum, London, England. 

In honor of London hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics happening right now, our Art Spotted post are the shoulder clasps from the Sutton Hoo burial chamber.  Though the Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Sutton Hoo actually contains many burials and cremations (including a number of execution burials where individuals died of hanging or decapitation), the most well known burial comes from Mound 1.  The burial is thought to be associated with the death of King Raedwald dated to circa 625 Common Era (CE).

Image showing the pin hinge and underside of one of the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps. Photo courtesy http://www.flickr.com/people/robroy/

The shoulder clasps, made of gold with blue glass and garnet inlay, are the only Anglo-Saxon artifacts of this type to ever be documented.  Current research posits that the clasps are generally thought to have been attached to lightweight leather body armor or a textile based chest protector layered over a mail coat.  The curved ends are decorated with entwined wild boars, possibly to depict the wearer’s strength, courage, and ferocity.

Sutton Hoo Cemetery burial mounds, located in Suffolk. Photo courtesy of archeurope.com

There is no other Anglo-Saxon burial that has captured the world’s imagination like the remains from Mound 1.  If you even visit the British Museum in London, England, make sure to stop and view these one of a kind objects.

For more information visit the British Museum’s page on the Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps.  Click here!

An article written by Noel Adams details the debate over what type of material to which the clasps were attached.  Click here!

The British Museum also has an interactive “tour” page detailing some of the Sutton Hoo finds.  Click here!

Costumes at TX Ren Fest, Scottish Weekend, November, 2011

The Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest Renaissance festival in the United States, is held annually from October to November in Todd Mission, Texas.  Many people express themselves here by creating elaborate costumes and garb in the style of pirates, fantasy, mythical creatures, Steampunk, SciFi, and traditional medieval and Renaissance dress.  It’s a hotbed of creative costume design!

Scottish family roams the marketplace
The manifestation of the Plague
Young Scottish warrior
Barbarians enjoy jousting too
Demon on stilts
Dancing gypsy
Fairies making sand paintings
Barbarian warrior princess on her trusty steed
Just your friendly local centaur

Art Spotted: Burgos, Spain

Cherub Holding Skull, 1500s, Catedral de Burgos, España

This small sculpture of a cherub holding a skull is located next to the central nave of the Burgos Cathedral in Burgos, Spain, and most probably dates to the first half of the 1500s.  Construction on the cathedral began in 1221 and the high altar was consecrated in 1260.  After 200 years, construction began again and the cathedral was “finished” in 1567, though the Chapel of Saint Tecla was added in the 18th Century.  The cathedral is the burial place of El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), an early 11th Century military hero, and his wife Doña Jimena.

Door of Saint Mary, Catedral de Burgos, España

Though the cathedral is open to the public for tours, it is a living church that serves the people of Burgos.  The cathedral is also known for being a stop on the El Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James), a pilgrimage route ending at the Santiago de Campostela Cathedral in Galicia, northern Spain, where it is traditionally thought the remains of Saint James are interred.

Seashell marker for the Camino de Santiago on the street in Burgos, España.

Homepage for the Catedral de Burgos.