The von Mechel Family

The front page of the 1715 edition.
Scharffenberg, Front page, 1715
The 1769-edition. Without woodcut.
Scharffenberg, Front page, 1769

One of the first to describe Basel's dance of death was Huldreich Frölich, who published the text along with lots of illustrations in 1588 and 1608.

These books were published in very close cooperation with the printer Henripetri, and after the death of the latter, the printery was taken over by the printer Decker. In 1681, the daughter of J.J. Decker married Johann Conrad von Mechel, and for this reason many of the old woodcuts from the workshop of Henripetri appear in books published by the family Mechel.

The family was active for more than a hundred years. Here is a short sketch:

The Dance of Death in Basel

The 1796-edition. The scene is a copy of the 1715-1740 editions. For close-up, click a new version of the same image.
Scharffenberg, Front page, 1796

Among the material the Mechel-family via the Decker-family inherited from Henripetri, were Frölich's books about Basel's dance of death. Frölich's books were already confusing: The texts were from Basel's and Bern's dances of death (along with a Latin translation of Basel's dance of death). With a few exceptions however, the illustrations were neither from Basel nor Bern, but were (bad) copies of Holbein's dance of death.

In 1715 Johann-Conrad von Mechel republished the material for the first time. He dropped the Latin text and much of the Bern-text and produced a new frontispiece (see picture to the left). Mechel then gave his book the exact same title as Merians book: »Der Todten-Tantz, wie derselbe in der weitberühmten Stadt Basel, als ein Spiegel menschlicher Beschaffenheit […]«.

Unfortunately, six of the Holbein copies had been lost (namely: duke, abbess, monk, old woman, sailor and count), but in 1724 his successor, Johann-Conrad von Mechel II, instead obtained four woodcuts that actually represented Basel's dance of death, viz. the abbess, the musician, the Jew and the heathen woman.

The book must have sold well for it was printed in 1724, 1735, 1740, 1769, 1786 and 1796. The editions up to 1740 had a frontispiece featuring two Deaths dragging a young woman away. The version from 1769 does not have such an image, but the books from 1786 and later sport a new version of the same image.

The book was re-issued several times in the 1800's. With their Holbein-pictures the Mechel family thus cemented the confusion that Frölich had founded - i.e. that Holbein should be the creator of Basel's dance of death.

One thing that Mechel didn't remove was Frölich's ending addressed to an imaginary satyr: »Hiemit die Rhym des Todten-tantz, O Satyre, sich enden gantz«. Therefore all editions from 1715 through 1870 ended with this text, which was never a part of the dance of death.

In spite of (or rather: because of) Mechel's massive editing the book is still a mess: As already mentioned most of the woodcuts are from Holbein's dance of death, and they are discussed on the page about Holbein and Georg Scharffenberg.

The book includes the child, which neither Merian nor Büchel have.
Scharffenberg, The child

Frölich had pulled the preacher out of the dance and placed him at the back of his book, but Mechel instead places him in front, like the preacher in Basel, where he can quote the Isaiah and Daniel texts that introduced the mural.

In Basel the ossuary was adorned with a depiction of Judgment day.
(fragment of the original mural)
Fragment, Ossuary

Then comes a picture of Judgment Day. This scene does not appear in Basel, so therefore Mechel has retained the text from Bern's dance of death. One might wonder why this scene has been placed here in the beginning of the book, when it marks the end of both Holbein's and Bern's dances and Frölich's book, but this may be because Basel had a Judgment Day scene over the ossuary (picture to the right).

Then come the individual dancers, where the text is from Basel, while the pictures are the usual mix of bad Holbein-copies and free fantasy. Mechel had lost the copy of Holbein's nobleman, so the duke and the duchess has to share the woodcut of Holbein's noblewoman. Therefore we get Death's speech to the duke (but not his answer), and the duchess' reply to Death (but we're not told what she's replying to).

Holbein's count has disappeared too, so Mechel illustrates him with Holbein's knight instead. Then he calls the knight "Nobleman" and illustrates him with Holbein's soldier, and he moves the noblewoman (who is Holbein's duchess) forwards in the dance. When Mechel comes to the real nobleman, he has run out of woodcuts, and the nobleman is removed from the dance.

The juror is illustrated with a copy of Holbein's canon. On the other hand, Basel's canon is illustrated with a copy of Holbein's priest. The hermit is illustrated by Holbein's old man, while the young man is the musician from Holbein's nun, who has been placed out on the street (picture to the left).

This is a copy of Holbein's nun but the musician has been placed out on the street, which means that the picture can be used for illustrating "the young man". There isn't a nun in Basel's dance of death anyway.
Scharffenberg, Nun
Copy of Holbein. The gambler does not appear in neither Basel nor Bern.
Scharffenberg, Gambler

At the end of the dance come Adam & Eve and a text that is the introduction from Bern's dance of death: »Von des Teuffels vergifften Zung, hat der Tod sein Ursprung […]« and at the very end a picture of the Expulsion from Paradise with more of the introduction from Bern: »Eva ist vast schuldig dran, Sie gab den Tod auch ihrem mann«. Frölich had placed Adam & Eve in front of the book, but Mechel places them in the back, like they were on the mural.

The result is confusing to say the least, both concerning contents and title. Frölich's book was confusing too, but he may be somewhat excused since he tried to combine three dances of death in one book, and at least he didn't leave out any dialogues. In Mechel's book content is solely determined by the available woodcuts — woodcuts that mostly doesn't even portray the dance in Basel. Nobleman, cripple, herald, executioner, painter's wife and Turk have disappeared simply because Mechel didn't a proper woodcut. Duke and duchess each lost half a dialogue because Mechel had lost the copy of Holbein's nobleman. On the other hand, Mechel retained Holbein's Expulsion from Paradise, drunkard, gambler and robber, who neither belong to Basel nor Bern, and where the text was presumably invented by Frölich.

The book was republished well into the 19th century and the thousands of tourists who visited the church in Basel and bought the book, must have gotten quite a surprise when they returned home and opened their new book. One can't help wondering if the von Mechel family were related to another contemporary publisher in Basel named von Mechel, namely Christian von Mechel, who created confusion with his "genuine" Holbein-drawings.

Woodcuts added by the Mechel Family (1724)

Heathen woman
Heathen woman

The Pictures

Six of the woodcuts were lost somewhere between Frölich's 1588-edition and the Mechel Family's editions.

The Fall
Scharffenberg 1576: The Fall
Scharffenberg 1576: Expulsion
The Pope
Scharffenberg 1576: The Pope
Scharffenberg 1576: Emperor
Scharffenberg 1576: Empress
Scharffenberg 1576: Queen
Scharffenberg 1576: Bishop
Scharffenberg 1576: Duke
Scharffenberg 1576: Abbot
Scharffenberg 1576: Abbess
Scharffenberg 1576: Canon
Scharffenberg 1576: Judge
Scharffenberg 1576: Senator
Scharffenberg 1576: Preacher
Scharffenberg 1576: Priest
Scharffenberg 1576: Monk
Scharffenberg 1576: Nun
Old woman
Scharffenberg 1576: Old woman
Scharffenberg 1576: Physician
Rich man
Scharffenberg 1576: Rich man
Scharffenberg 1576: Merchant
Scharffenberg 1576: Sailor
Scharffenberg 1576: Knight
Scharffenberg 1576: Count
Old man
Scharffenberg 1576: Old man
Scharffenberg 1576: Countess
Scharffenberg 1576: Noblewoman
Scharffenberg 1576: Peddler
Scharffenberg 1576: Peasant
Scharffenberg 1576: Child
Judgment Day
Scharffenberg 1576: Judgment Day
Scharffenberg 1576: Soldier
Scharffenberg 1576: Gambler
Scharffenberg 1576: Robber
Blind man
Scharffenberg 1576: Blind man
Scharffenberg 1576: Drunkard
Scharffenberg 1576: Fool
Scharffenberg 1576: Heathens
Scharffenberg 1576: Cook
Scharffenberg 1576: Painter
Scharffenberg 1576: King
Scharffenberg 1576: Cardinal
Scharffenberg 1576: Maid
Front page, 1715
Scharffenberg 1715: Front page, 1715
Front page, 1724
Scharffenberg 1724: Front page, 1724
Front page, 1740
Scharffenberg 1740: Front page, 1740
Front page, 1769
Scharffenberg 1649: Front page, 1769
Front page, 1786
Scharffenberg 1786: Front page, 1786
Front page, 1796
Scharffenberg 1796: Front page, 1796
Front page
Scharffenberg 1786: Front page

Further Information