First mention of Bleibach (Plidach) dates back to 1178. Next to the church in an adjacent chapel houses one of the most spectacular illustrations of the so-called "Dance of death". In other languages sometimes refered to as La Danza Macabra or Totentanz (German). 33 dance scenes refelect a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the dance of death united all. Dance of Death consists of the personified Death as a fictional character, which has existed in mythology and cultures since the earliest days of storytelling. Because the reality of death has had a substantial influence on the human psyche and the development of civilisation as a whole, the personification of Death as a living entity is a concept that has existed in all societies since the beginnings of recorded history.
In the Septuagint version of the Bible, Death is portrayed in the book of Tobit, considered apocryphal by Protestants, as Azrael, the angel of death.
The Bleibach Dance of Death illustrates a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave, starting with a child (contrary to the Basel Dance of Death, starting with the Pope), then followed by king, monk, Elztal girl, etc. all in typical dresses worn at the time. Most likely, they were produced under the impact of the Black Death, reminding people of how fragile their lives were. Black Death also known as the Black Plague was a devastating pandemic that first struck Europe around 1350; it was estimated to have killed about a third of Europe's population. A series of plague epidemics also occurred in large portions of Asia and the Middle East during the same period, which indicates this outbreak was a world wide pandemic. The same disease is thought to have returned to Europe every generation with varying degrees of intensity and fatality until the 1700s. Late outbreaks include the Italian Plague, the Great Plague of London, and the Great Plague of Vienna in 1679.
The result of the plague was twofold; firstly, a massive decline in population. Secondly, it created a mood of morbidity that influenced people to live for the moment, unsure of their daily survival. A symptom of the disease, called acral necrosis, did blacken skin due to subdermal hemorrhages. Historical records attribute the Black Death to an outbreak of bubonic plague, an epidemic of the bacterium Yersinia pestis spread by fleas with the help of animals like the black rat. The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the 14th to 17th centuries, and finally disappeared suddenly after the Great Plague of Vienna. One possible explanation for the disappearance of plague from Europe may be that the black rat infection reservoir and its disease carrying function was subsequently displaced and succeeded by the bigger Norwegian brown rat, which is not as prone to transmit the germ-bearing fleas to humans.
The need to prepare for one's death, for example caused by Black Death, was well known in Medieval literature through death-bed scenes, but before the 15th century there was no literary tradition on how to prepare to die, on what a good death meant, on how to die well. The protocols, rituals and consolations of the death bed were usually reserved for the services of an attending priest. So-called "ars moriendi" was a response by the Church to changing conditions brought about by the Black Death
The text and pictures of the Death Dance provided such ars moriendi services of a "virtual priest" to the lay public, an idea that today would be an unthinkable intrusion into our private lives. Ars moriendi provided guidance to dying for those who experienced the macabre horrors of the 14th to 17th centuries; and for those who were looking for ways to distinguish themselves by doing the "proper" acts in a culture increasingly status conscious.
Even in ancient Rome, on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets, behind the victorious general was a servant reminding the general that, though he was up on the peak today, tomorrow was another day. The servant did this by telling the general that he should remember that he was mortal. The famous Dance of Death, with its dancing depiction of Death carrying off rich and poor alike, is a well known example of the "memento mori" theme.
The genre of still life was formerly called vanitas, Latin for vanity, because it was thought appropriate for each such painting to include some kind of symbol of mortality in each picture; these could be obvious ones like skulls, or subtler ones, like a flower losing its petals.
Much memento mori art is associated with the Mexican festival, Day of the Dead, including even skull-shaped loaves of bread.
To Christians, the prospect of death serves to emphasise on the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and thus also as an invitation to focus one's thoughts on the prospect of the after life.
Most famous death dances can be found in: Paris (1424), Basel (1440), Lübeck (1463) and woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger (1538).
Citation of one (out of 33) Bleibach Dance of Death scene (in medieval German):
Devil to the farmer's wife:
Mit deiner loglen wohin geschwind
Zu trinckhen bringen deinem gesündt?
dein hausen, schaffen lass nur stehen
zuem tantz muest jetz du mit mir gehen.
Reply wife to devil:
Lass du mich gehen, du krummer Tot!
Ins Feld muss ich, es thuet mir noth;
Mit dir zu tantzen hab keine Zeit,
Im Feld muess schaffen mit andern Leuth!