Emanuel Büchel

Self-portrait of Büchel as baker
Emmanuel Büchel, Self-portrait
Basel, The Jew.
Büchel, Jew

Emanuel Büchel (1705-1775) was baker, illustrator, topographer and painter. In 1773 he was assigned the task of copying the dance of death in Basel. At that time he was 68 and he died 2 years later.

Büchel's watercolours are beautifully painted in handsome colours and they appear very convincing. But we must take this with a pinch of salt. Büchel executed his watercolours at a very late point in the history of the mural. In 1773 the mural had gone through countless changes and renovations, and it was so deteriorated that the whole wall was demolished only 32 years later.

There's no doubt that Büchel is our most meticulous copyist, but he can only tell us, what the remains of the mural looked like after more than 300 years of changes, where for instance the child and the Turk had perished.

In one of the two copies he produced, Büchel has included the painter and his family despite the fact that he himself says that they had been erased and replaced by the Paradise. Thus Büchel can only have seen them in Merians engravings, but he has made a mistake in the copying, for he has omitted the painter's stick leaning on the table.

As for the dialogues, which must also have been worn down in his time, there is no hint in Büchel's watercolors of how much he was able to see, how much he has read in Merian's books and how much is guesswork.

Therefore he has less value as a witness.

Büchel and Kleinbasel

Kleinbasel. The Jew.
Büchel, Death and The Jew
Kleinbasel, Abbess
Kleinbasel: Abbess

When it comes to the dance of death in Kleinbasel, the situation is quite different. In this case Büchel is simply our only witness, and the mural that he carefully reproduced had been spared of great changes.

The dance of death in Großbasel was painted on the wall of the churchyard in Basel, and even if it was protected by a lean-to roof it has still been exposed to weather, wind and vandalism. In contrast the dance of death in Kleinbasel was situated indoors in the defunct nunnery and it had been far better protected against weather, wear and tear, iconoclasms and renovations.

The mural that Büchel saw in 1766 was the original medieval painting, and Büchel's reproduction is not just a replica of the mural in Kleinbasel, but at the same time a unique witness to what the more famous painting in Großbasel had once looked like.

Büchel started in 1766 by copying the dialogues. He wrote the letters that were legible with dark ink, and the indistinct ones with gray ink. Sometimes he added suggestions to missing text, which he wrote in red ink to show that the reader could accept or reject this suggestions. Certain words did not make sense to Büchel, e.g. the word "bartzefal" for the herald, and he wrote these in blue.

Büchel, text (archbishop).
Büchel, Tekst

Büchel became frustrated with the quality of the mural: often dancers and text were pressed together, so that the letters were difficult to read. In the picture on the left, you can see how the four lines of Death's speech to the archbishop are divided into five lines, and how Death sticks his head into the text.

The next year, 1767, he made another folder containing sketches of all the figures, but without dialogue. The rest of the work took place at home, where in 1768 he and his daughters produced a third folder that combined text and images. The three portfolios together with his copious notes and observations are kept in the Klingental Museum.

What was less known was that seven years later, in 1773, when he produced the watercolors of Predigerkirche (top of this page),--> he was commissioned by Theodor Falkeysen to produce a copy of the completed folder from Kleinbasel.

The finished work: Archbishop and door
Büchel, ærkebiskop

The result can be seen on the right. Büchel also included the gates and doors that interrupted the painting. In the second half of the painting (on the north wing) the wall was pierced by four new windows, because the room was now used as a granary, and Büchel's drawings show how these windows had destroyed figures and dialogues.

Model showing the start of the dance.
Kleinbasel

On the other hand, it is difficult to see in Büchel's drawings how the different dancing couples were positioned. The model on the left is a qualified guess.

Have they been close? And how high up on the wall? Büchel had complained that the figures and the text were squeezed together, but this is not evident from his finished work, where there is plenty of space for the dialogues above the dancers. Death's words to the archbishop (pictured right) are still divided into five lines, but you can't see that Death's head is supposed to have been squeezed into the text.

The count with the year above.
Büchel, Count 1512

One of the mysterious details is the year above the count. Apparently the year was 1312, and even though many experts pointed out that this did not agree with the age of the building, the clothing and the language, there was apparently no doubt possible, for Büchel had written the numbers as text: "Anno domini | dussent ior dri | huntert vnd xij".

On the other hand, in the more unknown copy that Büchel later had produced for Falkeysen, Büchel had added a description of how, after applying a damp cloth on the painting, he could read the year instead as 1512. In this portfolio (pictured left) it says: "Anno domini | duisent u vumf | hundert und xii".

The wrong year had derailed research for 100 years, because with "1312" this painting would have been the world's supremely oldest dance of death. When Maßmann published Büchel's watercolors in 1847, he wrote: "what the old, worthy master baker from Basel failed to achieve in art, the Munich artist and copperplate engraver König von Koburg has partly made good and produced", which presumably means that Maßmann and his engraver, Gustav König, have used Heidelberg's block book to give the copies of Büchel an old-fashioned appearance to correspond with the year 1312.(1)

Although Büchel has corrected the error, there are still unanswered questions: How could there be room for three lines of text above the dialogue, if the text and figures were already pressed together? And is 1512 even the right year when several other paintings in Büchel's portfolio have the year 1517?

Resources and Links

Basel, Herald
Büchel, Herald
Basel, Herald
Büchel, Herald

Büchel painted two versions of the dance of death in Basel: one (left) is in bright colors with a square, sky-blue background, and the other is in more muted colors without a background.

The latter is available online from the University Library of Basel: Totentanz beim Predigerkloster (UBH Falk Mscr 55).

Büchel also made two versions of the Dance of Death in Kleinbasel/Klingenthal. These versions are quite similar, and one is available online from the University Library of Basel: Wandmalereien im Kloster Klingenthal (UBH Falk Mscr 56).

This edition does not contain the same notes as the original, but instead you will find Büchel's report on the year 1312/1512, which was written shortly before Büchel's, death, and stops very suddenly. Büchel's faint pencil writing is almost impossible to read, but enclosed is also a copy in ink by "Antistes" Jakob Burckhardt, which is slightly less impossible to read. At the back of the book are a number of pictures of other murals in the monastery.

The mural in Kleinbasel is thoroughly described in Die Kunstdenkmäler der Schweiz, vol. 4, 1961. The chapter "Die Wandbilder des Klingentals" by Rudolf Riggenbachside starts on page 95 and ends on pp. 132-140 with a review of the literature.

Further Information

A preacher introduces the dance in front of the ossuary.
Büchel, Preacher

Pictures by Emanuel Büchel

Preacher
Büchel 1773: Preacher
Pope
Büchel 1773: Pope
Queen
Büchel 1773: Queen
Abbess
Büchel : Abbess
Usurer
Büchel : Usurer
Herald
Büchel 1773: Herald
Jew
Büchel 1773: Jew
Basel
Büchel : Basel
Predigerkirche
Büchel 1774: Predigerkirche
Ossuary
Büchel 1768: Ossuary
Pope
Büchel 1768: Pope
Emperor
Büchel 1768: Emperor
Empress
Büchel 1768: Empress
King
Büchel 1768: King
Cardinal
Büchel 1768: Cardinal
Patriarch
Büchel 1768: Patriarch
Archbishop
Büchel 1768: Archbishop
Duke
Büchel 1768: Duke
Bishop
Büchel 1768: Bishop
Count
Büchel 1768: Count
Count 1512
Büchel 1768: Count 1512
Abbot
Büchel 1768: Abbot
Knight
Büchel 1768: Knight
Lawyer
Büchel 1768: Lawyer
Juror
Büchel 1768: Juror
Canon
Büchel 1768: Canon
Physician
Büchel 1768: Physician
Nobleman
Büchel 1768: Nobleman
Noblewoman
Büchel 1768: Noblewoman
Merchant
Büchel 1768: Merchant
Abbess
Büchel 1768: Abbess
Cripple
Büchel 1768: Cripple
Crucifixion
Büchel 1768: Crucifixion
Hermit
Büchel 1768: Hermit
Young man
Büchel 1768: Young man
Usurer
Büchel 1768: Usurer
Young woman
Büchel 1768: Young woman
Musician
Büchel 1768: Musician
Herald
Büchel 1768: Herald
Mayor
Büchel 1768: Mayor
Executioner
Büchel 1768: Executioner
Fool
Büchel 1768: Fool
Beguine
Büchel 1768: Beguine
Blind man
Büchel 1768: Blind man
Jew
Büchel 1768: Jew
Heathen
Büchel 1768: Heathen
Heathen woman
Büchel 1768: Heathen woman
Cook
Büchel 1768: Cook
Peasant
Büchel 1768: Peasant
Child
Büchel 1768: Child
Mother
Büchel 1768: Mother
Preacher and ossuary
Büchel 1773: Preacher and ossuary
Pope
Büchel 1773: Pope
Emperor
Büchel 1773: Emperor
Empress
Büchel 1773: Empress
King
Büchel 1773: King
Queen
Büchel 1773: Queen
Cardinal
Büchel 1773: Cardinal
Bishop
Büchel 1773: Bishop
Duke
Büchel 1773: Duke
Duchess
Büchel 1773: Duchess
Count
Büchel 1773: Count
Abbot
Büchel 1773: Abbot
Knight
Büchel 1773: Knight
Lawyer
Büchel 1773: Lawyer
Senator
Büchel 1773: Senator
Canon
Büchel 1773: Canon
Physician
Büchel 1773: Physician
Nobleman
Büchel 1773: Nobleman
Noblewoman
Büchel 1773: Noblewoman
Merchant
Büchel 1773: Merchant
Abbess
Büchel 1773: Abbess
Cripple
Büchel 1773: Cripple
Hermit
Büchel 1773: Hermit
Young man
Büchel 1773: Young man
Usurer
Büchel 1773: Usurer
Young woman
Büchel 1773: Young woman
Musician
Büchel 1773: Musician
Herald
Büchel 1773: Herald
Mayor
Büchel 1773: Mayor
Executioner
Büchel 1773: Executioner
Fool
Büchel 1773: Fool
Merchant
Büchel 1773: Merchant
Blind man
Büchel 1773: Blind man
Jew
Büchel 1773: Jew
Heathen
Büchel 1773: Heathen
Heathen woman
Büchel 1773: Heathen woman
Cook
Büchel 1773: Cook
Peasant
Büchel 1773: Peasant
Adam and Eve
Büchel 1773: Adam and Eve
Heathen woman
Büchel 1773: Heathen woman

Footnotes: (1)

Hans Ferdinand Maßmann, Die Baseler Todtentänze in getreuen Abbildungen. 1847, page 11:

[…]was der alte wurdige Baseler Bäckermeister in der Kunstdarstellung nicht erreichte, hat zum Theil der Münchener Kunstler und Kupferstecher König von Koburg gut gemacht und hergestellt,