In works of art, the adjective macabre (US: // or UK: //; 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.
The quality is not often found in ancient Greek and Latin writers, though there are traces of it in Apuleius and the author of the Satyricon. Outstanding instances in English literature include the works of John Webster, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mervyn Peake, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Thomas Hardy and Cyril Tourneur. 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 English as the Dance of Death and in German as Totentanz. 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. 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 Triumph of Death", attributed to Orcagna, in the Campo Santo at Pisa.
The etymology of the word "macabre" is uncertain. According to Gaston Paris it first occurs in the form "macabre" in Jean le Fèvre's Respit de la mort (1376), Je fis de Macabré la danse, and he takes this accented form to be the true one, and traces it in the name of the first painter of the subject. The more usual explanation is based on the Latin name, Machabaeorum chorea (Dance of Maccabees). The seven tortured brothers, with their mother and Eleazar (2 Maccabees 6 and 7) were prominent figures on this hypothesis in the supposed dramatic dialogues. Other connections have been suggested, as for example with St. Macarius, or Macaire, the hermit, who, according to Vasari, is to be identified with the figure pointing to the decaying corpses in the Pisan Triumph of Death, or with an Arabic word maqābir (مقابر), cemeteries (plural of maqbara.
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