MSUC: Chapter 2, Part 3

(This is the ninth part of my dissertation series. Previous: MSUC: Chapter 2, part 2)

The Cornett as a Symbol of Death and the Transitory in the Graphic Arts

Heidelberg Death Dance illustration

Heidelberg Death Dance illustration

Artwork from the Medieval and Renaissance eras frequently depicted skeletons playing cornetts as they carry out their “Dance of Death,” “Danse Macbre,” or “Totentanz.” According to and , epidemics of the bubonic plague contributed to the prevalence of this type of artwork.[1] That Death comes for people of all social classes is a prominent theme in this genre. Ancillary to this idea is the assignment of appropriate instruments to the rank of person.[2] Steblin observes that “an examination of numerous other Totentanz representations from the fifteenth century reveals that wind instruments—often shawms, bagpipes, or a pipe and drum combination—prevail.”[3] Also important is the idea that the instruments are dance instruments. Thus, the instrument of choice for any time period is influenced by the current fashion in dance music. My database has over a hundred records that associate the cornett with dancing, so it is not

surprising that several Death Dance depictions show Death playing the cornett. Hakelberg observes that “the illustration of a ‘virtual cornett’ appears in the Lower German death dance, a xylographic block-book from circa 1465.”[4]  Hakelberg and Naylor both reproduce prints of skeletons dancing playing “proto-cornetts” from Der Doten Dantz mit figuren (printed by Heinrich Knoblochzer, Heidelberg, ca. 1484).[5] Later in the seventeenth century, Kaspar Meglinger painted the Totentanz, with one skeleton playing a curved cornett.[6]

Steblin points to the seventeenth-century Vanitas paintings, which supplanted the Death Dance genre popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. “Memento Mori” is the new theme of this type of artwork, which she describes in the following way:

The early Vanities, which included human figures, subsequently developed into still-lifes with well-defined stock images: a skull, hour-glass, mirror, burnt-out candles, and dead flowers that symbolize the passage of time; books, dice, playing cards, and musical instruments to show meaningless (and sensual) pastimes.[7]

Crispijn de Passe, "Terra"

Crispijn de Passe, “Terra”

Crispijn de Passe (the elder) made an engraving after Martin de Vos entitled Terra. In this Vanitas engraving of around 1600, a gentleman plays the lute, while a lady holds the violin, demonstrating the musical pleasures (=vanities) of the Earth. Among many stock images here are a salamander, representing death and rebirth, and a cornett.[8]


(Next: The cornett in English Drama)

[1]. Friend Robert Overton, Der Zink (Mainz: B. Schotts Sohne, 1981), 23; Rita Steblin, “Death as a Fiddler: The Study of a Convention in European Art, Literature and Music,” Basler Jahrbuch für Historische Musikpraxis 14 (1990): 272.

[2]. Steblin, “Death as a Fiddler,” 272; Dietrich Hakelberg, “A Medieval Wind Instrument from Schlettwein, Thuringia,” Historic Brass Society Journal 7 (1995): 189. Steblin includes the translated text of the title page of the Knoblochtzer Totentanz:

Come ye sires and servers

Rush here from all estates

Young and old, pretty or ugly

All must come to this house of dance.


[3]. Steblin, “Death as a Fiddler,” 273.

[4]. Hakelberg, “Medieval Instrument,” 189. The “virtual cornett” refers to a lip-blown instrument, curved, with some finger holes, but not the characteristic thumb-plus-six finger hole arrangement and octagonal profile of sixteenth-century curved cornetts. In general, it is extremely difficult to accurately identify instruments depicted in Medieval artwork, according to Hakelberg. The mouthpieces of cornetts or the reeds of shawms are usually not visible or rendered with enough detail.

[5]. “Death and the Thief” and “Death and the Gambler,” reprinted in Hakelberg, “Medieval Instrument,” 191, fig. 4;  “Orchestra of Death,” reprinted in Tom L. Naylor, The Trumpet & Trombone in Graphic Arts, 1500–1800 (Nashville: The Brass Press, 1979), plate 66. This example may likely represent shawms instead of cornetts.

[6].  Overton, Der Zink, 23. Reprinted in appendix, plate 61, 235.

[7]. Steblin, “Death as a Fiddler,” 279.

[8]. Sydney. Beck and Elizabeth E. Roth, Music in Prints (New York: New York Public Library, 1965), plate 22.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *