The Art of Dying

"The Death Blow"

William Combe

The English Dance of Death: From the Designs of Thomas Rowlandson, with Metrical Illustrations

London: Printed by J. Diggens, published at R. Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1815-1816

PR3359.C5E6 1815 v.2 Rare

Death has long been a source of artistic inspiration and its presence in early comics is not surprising. In works like the Ars Moriendi and various versions of the Dance of Death, images depicting confrontations with death were widely disseminated and helped shape the iconography of dying while serving as a reminder of death’s omnipresence. Ranging from the comical to the tragic, these images address the uncertainty around and inescapable nature of death and how we navigate the inevitable tension between a “good” death and a “bad” death.

Death comes in many forms and is the great equalizer, shown taking the life of individuals regardless of age, occupation, or social status, but doing so in a lively and often playful manner—engaging humanity in a morbid dance. The selected passages focusing on physicians are also reminders of medicine’s limited ability to intervene, depicting death as a mocking and contemptuous participant in the clinical interaction. Note the repeated representation of the urine flask, a symbol of the diagnostic process of the era and an iconographic signifier of the physician. These comics discourse nicely with the treatment of death in contemporary works of graphic medicine that often contend with the idea of the “good” death but in a highly medicalized context.