Upper section of the Transi of René de Chalon. Sculpture by Ligier Richier, c. 1545–1547.
A death head wearing the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, on the sarcophagus of Habsburg emperor Charles VI in the crypt of the Capuchin church in Vienna, Austria.
Trionfo della Morte ("Triumph of Death"), fresco painted by Buonamico Buffalmacco[1] (c. 1330s–1350, disputed),[2] Pisa, Italy
Chandelier of human bones and skulls, Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic
Totentanz ("Dance of the Dead"), illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514)

In works of art, the adjective macabre (US: /məˈkɑːb/ or UK: /məˈkɑːbrə/; French: [makabʁ]) means "having the quality of having a grim or ghastly atmosphere". The macabre works to emphasize the details and symbols of death. The term also refers to works particularly gruesome in nature.


Early traces of macabre can be found in Ancient Greek and Latin writers such as the Roman writer Petronius, author of the Satyricon (late 1st century CE), and the Numidian writer Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass (late 2nd century CE). Outstanding instances of macabre themes in English literature include the works of John Webster, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mervyn Peake, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Thomas Hardy, and Cyril Tourneur.[3] In American literature, authors whose work feature this quality include Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King. The word has gained its significance from its use in French as la danse macabre for the allegorical representation of the ever-present and universal power of death, known in German as Totentanz and later in English as the Dance of the Dead. The typical form which the allegory takes is that of a series of images 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. Of the numerous examples painted or sculptured on the walls of cloisters or church yards through medieval Europe, few remain except in woodcuts and engravings.

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, and Camille Saint-Saëns' tone poem Danse macabre, op. 40 (1847).
In the 20th century, Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film The Seventh Seal has a personified Death, and could thus count as macabre.

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.[4] 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 fresco Trionfo della Morte ("Triumph of Death"), painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Buonamico Buffalmacco (c. 1330s–1350, disputed),[2] and currently preserved in the Campo Santo of Pisa.[1]


The etymology of the word "macabre" is uncertain. According to Gaston Paris, French scholar of Romance studies, it first occurs in the form "macabree" in a poem, Respit de la mort (1376), written by the medieval Burgundian chronicler Jean Le Fèvre de Saint-Remy:[5]

Je fis de Macabree la dance,
Qui toute gent maine a sa trace
Et a la fosse les adresse.[5]

The more usual explanation is based on the Latin name, Machabaeorum chorea ("Dance of the Maccabees"). The seven tortured brothers, with their mother and Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6 and 7) are prominent figures in the dramatic dialogues.[6] Other connections have been suggested, as for example with St. Macarius the Great, an Egyptian Coptic monk and hermit who is to be identified with the figure pointing to the decaying corpses in the fresco Trionfo della Morte ("Triumph of Death") painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Buonamico Buffalmacco, according to the Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari;[citation needed] or with the Arabic word maqābir (مقابر, plural of maqbara) which means "cemeteries".[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b Bellosi, Luciano (2000). Come un prato fiorito. Studi sull'arte tardogotica. Di fronte e attraverso. Storia dell'arte (in Italian). Milan: Jaca Book. p. 9. ISBN 9788816404335.
  2. ^ a b Aavitsland, Kristin B. (2012). "Mortis Memoria: To Remember One's Death". Imagining the Human Condition in Medieval Rome: The Cistercian fresco cycle at Abbazia delle Tre Fontane. Routledge (1st ed.). London and New York: Routledge. pp. 131–132. ISBN 9781138273078. LCCN 2011050166.
  3. ^ "Roald Dahl Day: From Tales of the Unexpected to Switch Bitch, Dahl's undervalued stories for adults". The Independent. 14 October 2017.
  4. ^ See Du Cange, Gloss., s.v. Machabaeorum chora.
  5. ^ a b Paris, Gaston (1895). Meyer, Paul; Paris, Gaston (eds.). "La Dance Macabré de Jean Le Fèvre". Romania (in French). Paris: Librairie Droz, on behalf of the Société des amis de la Romania. 24 (93): 129–132. doi:10.3406/roma.1895.5871. eISSN 2391-1018. ISSN 0035-8029. JSTOR 45042550. Retrieved 21 September 2022.
  6. ^ The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Fifth edition; 2002) states that the origin of "macabre" perhaps has reference to "a miracle play containing the slaughter of the Maccabees." Volume 1, p. 1659.