Beginning with the Middle Ages, mortality was shown as being escorted into the next life by a skeleton-esque figure - a dance with death.
"The skeleton functions as not only the abstract personification of death, the agent of death, but the skeleton is also the dead double of the living person," said Rima Girnius, associate curator of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. "It's the mirror image of the living person."
The way that artists depicted that transition is shown in "Dancing Towards Death," an exhibit opening this week at the Figge.
Girnius curated the exhibit, using about 60 pieces on loan from Richard Harris, a Chicago collector who has more than 1,000 multimedia pieces depicting death. It is complemented by pieces from the Figge collection.
"Death is something we can all deal with and relate to," Girnius said, "but it's also something that's very hard for us, a constant presence that we don't really know how to deal with.
"This helps us come to terms with it in some degree," she added.
The skeletal depiction of death is prevalent in France and her native Germany, Girnius said. She even studied depictions of the dance with death while obtaining her master's degree and doctorate from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
"I thought it would be fantastic to return to a subject that I had studied when I was a graduate student," she said.
After what Girnius said were difficult decisions, she chose the objects for the exhibit, which continues through mid-January.
The works include a piece by Rembrandt, a delicate fruitwood sculpture from the 1700s and a two-sided oil portrait with a man's face on one side, his skeleton on the other.
In some pieces, death is shown visiting those of every social station.
"The theme was death as the great equalizer," Girnius said.
Many of the pieces show the evolution from a Christian to a secular way of thinking about death, she said.
"Death was seen as a transitional state to a life thereafter," she said. "Life was considered fragile, and that's where death would come at any time to anyone. So one would focus on living a life of virtue."