The Dance of Death in Kleinbasel / Klingental

The River Rhine divides Basel into Großbasel (top) and Kleinbasel. The arrows indicate the two dances of death.
Engraving by Matthew Merian, 1642.
Basel by Merian

Close to Basel's famous dance of death in the Dominican monastery was another Dominican monastery in Kleinbasel named Klingental after its founder Walter von Klingen. In this secluded nunnery there used to be a copy of the famous dance.

The dance of death was painted on the wall in two long corridors. On the western wall the dance started with the picture of the ossuary and all dancers up to and including the cripple. Around the corner, the dance of death was interrupted by the crucified Jesus — just as in Berlin's dance of death — and then the dance continued on the northern wall from the hermit to the mother.

Klein-Basel. The Jew.
Büchel, Death and The Jew

After the Reformation, which in Basel took place in 1529, the nuns were run out of the city. In 1559 the nunnery was closed and the city took over the building for various purposes. The fresco survived up through the 18th century, except for a new door and a few new windows in the wall, but in the 19th century a military kitchen was installed which greatly deteriorated the fresco.

The walls were demolished in the 1860'ies and if it hadn't been for professor d'Annone assigning Büchel to copy the mural in 1766-68 we wouldn't know anything about it today. Büchel made two sets of his water colours, one of which is in Kunstsammlung Basel and the other in the university's library.

The copy in Klingental has been carelessly executed. People who had seen the mural in Klingental, commented that Büchel's watercolours were better than the mural. The text is also hastily copied with apparent errors: The bishop lacks a "wile" in »Die [wile] Ich left in Biscoffs' orden«; Death stutters and says "wil" twice to the abbot: »Er wil wil vwers libs walten«; the canon says "gesungen" twice: »Ich han gesungen als ein koirher fri Gesungen menge melody«; the noblewoman stutters and says "gar" twice: »Ein dantz leit hie gar gar grulich klindt«; and Death forgets a "Tod" in »Der [Tod] nympt weder gelt noch güt«, and the merchant forgets an "und", »Kisten [und] Kasten Woeren vol«. There's also a long line of strange spelling errors like "Aispenfieren" instead of "Dispensieren".

A witness to the Original Mural

The start of Kleinbasel
Kleinbasel, Ossuary

Regardless of which painting is a copy of which, there's general agreement that in Klingental we have a witness to how the mural in Großbasel originally looked. The mural in Großbasel had gone through many renovations, where in particular Hans Kluber made great changes, whereas the fresco Büchel copied in 1766 is thought to have been the original medieval work.

The mural is a bit smaller than in Großbasel. Büchel tells us that the mural in Kleinbasel was 70 paces long, but 80 paces in Basel. The dancers are thus a bit smaller in Kleinbasel, but both dances of death have the strange quality that the dancers get taller and taller as the dance proceeds. In Kleinbasel, the pope and the emperor were 4 feet, the cripple 4 fet, 1 inch, the king, juror, lawyer, nobleman, merchant, young man and the musician 4½ feet, the councilman 4 feet, 9 inches, the heathen 5, while the child and the mother were 5½. In Großbasel the people around the ossuary were 4 feet, 3 inches, most of the others were 5 feet, while Adam & Eve were 5½ feet.

The start is a bit different: In Großbasel the mural starts with quotes from Isaiah where the fragile human life is compared to the flower in the field. After a preacher, the proper dance starts with the ossuary, and the text points back to the Isaiah-quote and human life is once again compared to withering flowers: »Death takes them, early and late, just like the flower in the field dissolves«.

In Kleinbasel there are neither Isaiah quotes nor preacher. The dance starts with the ossuary (to the right) but the text is totally different and doesn't quote Isaiah. Instead the author speculates over how lords and servants are equal in death: »Hie richt got noch dem rechten, Die heren ligen Bi den Knechten, nvn mercket hie Bi, Welger her oder knecht gewesen si«.

In Groß-Basel there was a cardinal under the picture of the queen.
Fragment, Cardinal

The 39 dancers are as a rule the same in both dances of death with certain well-founded exceptions:

Klein-Basel, cardinal.
Line drawing after Büchel
Klein-Basel: Cardinal

In Klingental the fifth dancer is a cardinal, while there's a queen in fifth place in Großbasel. But at the art museum in Basel there's still a fragment of the mural with the queen, and under several layers of paint a cardinal was discovered, who has the same posture as the cardinal in Kleinbasel (pictures to the left and right).

In Großbasel the cardinal has moved one place back in the dance and he looks suspiciously like the patriarch from Klein-basel. In the same way the bishop in Großbasel has taken the archbishop's place and posture, and the original bishop has been replaced by a duchess.

Further ahead in the dance there's a peddler in Großbasel where Klein-Basel has a beguine, while a councilman has taken the place of the lawyer. Klein-Basel has a child (which had long disappeared from Groß-Basel), whereas later additions like the painter, the painter's family, the Turk and Adam and Eve don't appear.

The text in Kleinbasel turns out to be a variant of the so-called Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz - as we for instance know it from Heidelberg. In Groß-Basel the text has gone through several changes - the most striking difference being for the juror, where Death's speech in Groß-Basel, originally was the juror's reply to Death in Kleinbasel.

1312 or 1512?

The monastery in Kleinbasel (detail of map by Matthew Merian, 1615)
Merian, map of Basel, 1615

In Büchel's reproduction of the fresco, a year was written over the count (i.e. the middle of the western wall). The year was 1312 and appearently there was no way it could have been a mistake, because Büchel had spelled it out: Dussent ior dri hundert und xij.

For this reason scholars were for a long time convinced that it was the primitive fresco in Kleinbasel, which had inspired not just the famous painting in Großbasel, but also all the known variations of Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz. In fact, with the year 1312 the fresco would not just be older than any other known dance of death - more than 100 years older than the dance of death in Paris - but also more than 100 years older than the very wall upon which the fresco was painted. The wall wasn't erected before 1437

But Büchel had made two copies of his watercolours and in the other copy, at that time placed in the church's archive, Büchel had attached a pencil-note with a long explanation.(1)

Büchel had read the year 1312 in faint writing that was hard to decipher. Several experts had confirmed to Büchel that he had read it right, but he tried to work a little more systematically, and arranged for the area to be cleaned. At a point the wall was moistened with a wet cloth, and the year 1512 appeared.

Büchel then made a bit more research and found out that in 1512 the fresco had been refreshed, and several figures and texts on the western-wall had been painted over in oil paint.

In this - less known - copy, Büchel therefore writes above the count - still in letters: Anno domini duisent u Vuinf hundert und xii.

The relationship between the two murals

The west-wall ended with the cripple.
Büchel, Death and the cripple
The north-wall started with a newly invented figure: The hermit.
Büchel, Death and the hermit

For many years it has been discussed whether this primitive unknown fresco was the original of the more famous mural in Großbasel or vice versa. During the time when the mural was believed to be from 1312, it was of course assumed that it had to be the oldest/original painting.

Today it is thought that the dance in Kleinbasel is a copy of the dance in Großbasel. The dance of death with its social criticism, addressing the city's citizens, jurors, merchants and usurers was evidently written for the publicly accessible churchyard in the city of Basel, and not for the secluded nunnery.

Nevertheless there are many problems. Koller(2) points out some strange circumstances:

  1. Compared to other versions of the Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, both of these murals have been expanded from 24 participants to 39, but the 15 new participants are far from evenly distributed over the dance.

    On the west-wall in Klingental there was only added a single person, namely an advocate (Fürsprech) between the juror and the canon (in Großbasel there was instead a senator at this position).

    The last figure on the west-wall was the cripple (picture to the left). The shift to the north-wall was marked with a crucifixion scene, and then followed a block with 14 newly invented participants: Hermit (picture to the right), young mand, usurer, etc., until the row was finished with the staple characters: cook, peasant, child and mother. Koller interpreted this as if the painter halfway during his work in Klingental had discovered there was too much space, and therefore had hurried up and invented 14 new dancing couples.

    Klein-Basel, Abbess
    Klein-Basel: Abbess
  2. The texts in Klein- and Großbasel are often identical, also when then they deviate from the Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz. For instance both murals agree in turning the nun into an abbess (picture to the right), and the abbess' speech (»ICh hab gelesen auß dem Psalter […]«) is the same in both dances, but quite different from the nun's speech in Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz (»Ich han in dem kloster mein […]«).

  3. However, when it comes to the 15 extra dancers, the texts are very different in Klein- and Großbasel. For instance the hermit in Kleinbasel says: »Ich hab mengen zo grab getragen / Min sterben moiz ich selber clagen« and in Großbasel: »ICh hab getragen lange Zeit / Ein härin Kleyd, hilfft mich jetzt nit«.

Koller attempted to solve the puzzle by assuming that 1512 wasn't the year of a restauration of the mural, but the year it was created. According to his hypothesis, the mural in Großbasel was executed in 1439, but consisted only of the 24 staple participants from Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz. When the painter in Klingental copied the painting in 1512, he discovered halfway through his work, that there was too much space, så he invented 14-15 new dancing couples, who didn't have any text from Großbasel to copy. Shortly after, the city council in Basel asked a painter (maybe the same?) to restore their mural and expand the dance after the model in Klingental. This happened already before the mural in Klingental had acquired speeches for the 14+1 new dancers.

Koller's hypothesis is not particularly convincing and it almost raises more questions than it answers. Nevertheless he is right in saying that the relationship between the two paintings is puzzling.

In this Section about Basel

Footnotes: (1) (2)

This information is taken from Burchhardt-Biedermann in Beiträge zur Vaterländischen Geschichte, page 46-47. I've marked Büchel's words with red:

»Fernere Untersuchung das Alter des Todtentanzes im Klingenthal betreffend.« Nach einer kurzen Erörterung über das hohe Alter des Gemäldes, die nichts Neues enthält, fährt Büchel fort: »Inwährend dieser Arbeit (des Copierens) entdeckte ich eine sehr verblichene Schrift, welche über dem Bilde des Grafen stehet, so die Jahreszahl 1312 anzudeuten schiene, welche auch von unterschiedlichen Kennern alter Schriften also gelesen wurde. Dieser Beifall machte, daß ich dafür hielt, besagte Jahreszahl wolle den Ursprung dieses Werkes anzeigen, weilen sie oben angezogenen Umständen angemessen war. Um aber auf den rechten Grund zu kommen, wurde eine neue Untersuchung vorgenommen, diese zweifelhafte Schrift deutlicher zu machen. Man bemühete sich, solche zu säubern, allein man richtete nichts damit aus, bis man endlich auf den Einfall gerathen, solche mit einem nassen Tuche anzufeuchten, vermittelst dessen kame folgende Jahrszahl zum Vorschein: 1512. Allein diese wollte dem Alter dieses Werkes nicht entsprechen. Ich ware also genöthiget, weiter nachzuspüren, was besagte Jahreszahl bedeuten wolle? Endlich wurde ich nach einer scharfen Untersuchung gewahr, daß solche eine Erneuerung, welche mit dem Todtentanz vorgenommen worden, anzeigen wolle. Ich beobachtete, daß die Vorstellung des Beinhauses, der Pabst, Kaiser und übrige Figuren bis zum Waldbruder mit Oelfarben übermalet wären, ingleichen die Schriften, insonderheit bei den ersten Vorstellungen verbessert und erneuert worden. Noch deutlicher zeigte es sich, daß etwas dergleichen vorgegangen«

Hier bricht leider das Manuscript mitten auf der Seite ab, und wir müssen uns mit dem Gesagten begnügen. Vielleicht wollte der aufmerksame Beobachter als Anzeichen der Uebermalung noch die hübschen, aus Ranken bestehenden Ornamente geltend machen, welche er über den drei rechteckigen Fenstern dieses Kreuzgang-Flügels, sowie über der Kaiserin fand und in seinem zweiten Exemplar getreu abbildete. Auf Blatt 11, also genau in der Mitte des westlichen Flügels, über dem Bilde des Grafen stellt er nun die früher 1312 gelesene Jahreszahl so dar:

Anno domini duisent u Vuinf hundert und xii

Erwin Koller, Totentanz, Versuch einer Textembeschreibung, 1980, pages 529-533.

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