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A display case in Room 3 of the National Bank’s Temporary Museum contains a small painting depicting a wealthy man frightened by a skeleton playing a musical instrument. Nearby you can see an emergency banknote featuring skeletons dancing. What was the reason for depicting such macabre scenes on banknotes, and what is the connection between the painting and money? Find out in this edition of “Spotlight”!

“Death invites the old miser to a last dance”, by Frans Francken II © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

“Death invites the old miser to a last dance”, by Frans Francken II © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

This 17th century painting is by the Antwerp artist Francken de Jonge and is tellingly entitled “Death invites the old miser to a last dance”. In the foreground we can see a rich man counting his money, and looking up aghast when he sees Death.  Death is depicted as a skeleton, playing the violin, and resting his foot on an hour glass to show that the rich man has little time left before he dies. In the background we can see a young man meeting Death. This young man may represent the old man in his youth, confronted by his mortality, but “buying” time. It could also be a different young man to make it clear that Death can come at any time, regardless of a person’s age.  These representations are part of the traditional memento mori motif, very popular from the Middle Ages, which can be translated as “Remember that you are mortal”. The painting had a moralising function and was meant to remind those who saw it that life and all earthly wealth is transient. In the Ancien Regime, the transience of earthly wealth was a popular theme in art. Apart from this painting, the museum collection contains a number of engravings or prints which aimed to encourage people to live an exemplary, religious life rather than focus on earthly pleasures such as wealth.  In the Christian tradition, salvation – unlike wealth – was eternal.

Inside of the lid of a coin-weight box © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Inside of the lid of a coin-weight box © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

We find the same memento mori motif on coin-weight box labels. Coin-weight boxes were used from the Middle Ages to check the weight and therefore the value of coins made of precious metal. These boxes contained weighing scales and weights corresponding to the weight of the coins in circulation. On the inside of the box there is often a label not only depicting the coins that can be checked with the weights and their value in guilders and penny’s, but also showing the money-changer weighing, collecting or counting money. On the print shown here we can see that Death – again depicted with an hour glass – takes a couple by surprise as they count their money. The message that death comes unexpectedly and that earthly wealth is unimportant is reinforced by the reference to the gospel text Luke 12. This biblical text refers to the transience of wealth.

Another way of representing the memento mori motif was the dance of death. This originated from the late 14th century and can be seen in churches, books and paintings.  The dance of death was also intended to point out that death can come to anyone at any time, and aimed to urge people to lead a good life. The emergency banknote from Merksplas dating from 1916 and depicting a dance of death demonstrates that this motif was still being used in the 20th century. Emergency banknotes were issued during the First World War by municipal councils because of the shortage of coins and notes. They were used for local payment. More than 480 Belgian municipalities issued their own currency. It was 1926 before the emergency currency went out of circulation in Belgium.

Back of the 50 centime emergency note issued in 1916 by the Merksplas Local Board of the National Assistance and Food Committee © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

Back of the 50 centime emergency note issued in 1916 by the Merksplas Local Board of the National Assistance and Food Committee © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

The choice of the dance of death as the illustration on the emergency banknote issued in Merksplas in 1916 was probably prompted by the constant proximity of death in wartime rather than by Christian morality. There could perhaps be a connection with the installation of the “death wire” in 1915. This was a high voltage electric fence that the German occupying forces installed on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. The Germans aimed to prevent Belgians from fleeing to the neutral Netherlands. The fence was also intended to prevent smuggling and clandestine postal communication. During the war the electric fence claimed many victims, including some in the border village of Merksplas. Shortly after the electric fence had been installed in Merksplas it killed its first victim. In 1916 there were three more fatalities. The village residents were thus closely acquainted with the horrors of war, and that may explain why the dance of death was depicted on their wartime currency.

Emergency 75 pfennig note from Oberammergau © Epitaaf

Emergency 75 pfennig note from Oberammergau © Epitaaf

The German emergency money from the First World War also frequently depicts Death skeletons. Since the crisis persisted in Germany after the end of the war, the issuance of emergency banknotes was not confined to the war years. In 1922 the Germany government finally banned the production of emergency money. The repercussions of the ravages of war were very evident in Germany for a long time after the war had ended; just think of the many widows and disabled veterans.

It is therefore unsurprising that scenes in which Death is a prominent character appear regularly on German emergency banknotes. The 75 pfennig note shown here, issued by the municipality of  Oberammergau, depicts Death sowing destruction in the village. There is also a reference to the plague; the year 1634 brought one of the worst plague epidemics ever known. Like the dance of death, the plague can be seen as a metaphor representing the arbitrary nature of Death. However, the raised finger warning against an obsession with wealth, seen on the painting and on the coin-weight box, is missing here.

Sien Smits
Museum guide

Bibliography

  • Brion R. & Moreau J.L., Het bankbiljet in alle staten. Van het eerste bankpapier tot de euro, Antwerp, Mercatorfonds, 2001.
  • De Soete J., “De dans ontsprongen? De afgebeelde dood in Serienscheine”, in Epitaaf, 2011, consulted on 12 March 2015.
  • “The National Bank of Belgium Museum” in Openbaar Kunstbezit in Vlaanderen, 2, 2000.
  • Huiskamp M. & de Graaf C., Gewogen of bedrogen. Het wegen van geld in de Nederlanden, Leiden, Rijksmuseum Het Koninklijk Penningkabinet, 1994.
  • Janssen H., Hoogspanning aan de Belgisch-Nederlandse grens, Amalia van Solms Local History Society, 2013.
  • “Municipal currency in Belgium during the 1914-1918 war”, in NBB  2, 1953.
  • Memento Mori”, in Museum of Art and Archaeology, consulted on 12 March 2015.
  • Staats R., “De dodendans in de middeleeuwen”, in Utrecht University Repository, 2011, consulted on 12 March 2015.
  • Vervloesem I., “Emergency money”, in National Bank Museum, In de kijker, 2007, consulted on 12 March 2015.

With thanks to Herman Janssen of the Amalia van Solms local history society for the information about the electric fence in Merksplas.