Matthew (Matthäus) Merian (1593-1650)

Frontispiece for one of the 1621-editions
Merian, Todten-Tantz 1621
Merian: The Heathen
Merian, Heathen

Matthäus Merian is considered to be the person who has made the most complete and reliable representation of the dance of death in Basel. In comparison, Frölichs book is of little use since most of the woodcuts are free interpretations of Holbein, while a conscientious and reliable artist like Büchel suffers from having seen the mural more than 100 years later — after several renovations and at a time when parts of the mural were ruined.

According to the preface to Merian's 1649-edition, he had drawn a copy of the dance of death 33 years ago, i.e. in 1616. We know that Emanuel Bock (son of Hans Bock) restored the mural from 1614 to 1616, so Merian must have copied a newly-restored painting

Merian then used his drawings as the basis for his famous copperplates, which he either sold or gave to his cousin Johann Jakob Merian.

Merian's copperplates were published twice in 1621: once by Johann Schröter and once by Mattheus Mieg. Two exemplars of Mieg's edition can be downloaded from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (see external links below).

Both of these exemplars are printed in a rather jumbled way: Normally you would create 8 pages out of 1 sheet (see the page: How to make your own dance of death), but it seems as if the ossuary has been inserted as an extra leaf. Normally the plates would be placed recto (i.e. at the right side of the page opening), but in Mieg's 1621-edition all the plates are placed verso.

Merian's map of Basel from 1615 includes the Predigerkirche. The dance of dance was located on the inner side of the wall.
Predigerkirche in Basel

One of the two exemplars from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek has the defect that the plates for senator and knight have been mixed up (i.e.: the senator's dialogue is illustrated with the plate of the knight and vice versa).

The other exemplar is far more messy: First of all, the leaf with the ossuary has been placed at the end, whereas Adam and Eve has been placed at the start. According to Mischa von Perger who has had an opportunity to inspect the copy, the errors are not due to the scanning, but to the binding.

Map of Basel by Merian. The arrows indicate the two dances of death.
Basel by Merian

Secondly, every group of 4 dancers are in inversed order. E.g. the dance ends with mother, painter, peasant and cook, while the correct sequence is cook, peasant, the painter and his wife and child. The problem here is that each of the sheets from B through K have been misbound. Maybe the bookbinder became confused because the plates are printed verso instead of recto?

The text is available here: Todten-Tantz, 1621.

The 1625-edition

Mieg has corrected all these errors in the 1625-edition, and the prints are placed recto. However, the painter has been placed before his wife and child, which is rather illogical since the mother is a standard part of the High German eight-lined dance of death, while the painter is an later addition, who should be placed at the end of the dance — looking back at his creation.

It's an open question whether this was because of the jumble in the 1621-edition, but from now on, the painter comes before his wife in all future editions of Merian (and also the copies later made by Chovin, Beck, Stuckert / Felix and Feyerabend).

A dialogue in Latin between Death and the dancers has been added on the verso-pages. This Latin text is not — as one would have thought — the same text that Frölich used in 1588, but instead the one Laudismann wrote, but apparently never got published, and which Frölich used in his 1608 edition. See the last part of the page about Frölich for further confusing details.

The contents are the same as in the 1621-edition: A 8-pages dedication to four powerful members of the city senate: »Den Ehrenvesten / Fürgeachten / Frommen / Fürsichtigen / Ehrsamen vnnd Weisen Herren« written Oktober 28th 1621, the dance of death, a plate about reparations of the mural, and finally four pages addressing the Christian reader: »An den Christlichen Leser«.

The (German) text is available here: Todten-Tantz, 1625.

The 1649-edition

Merian, The pope, 1621
Merian, Pope, 1621
Merian, The pope, 1649
Merian, Pope

In 1649 Matthew Merian bought the plates back, revised them and added an considerable amount of new material:

The text is available here: Todten-Tantz, 1649.

Later editions

Frontispiece for the 1696-edition
Merian, Todten-Tantz 1696
The 1698-edition was in French
Merian, Merian, Dance

Long after Merian's death in 1650, the plates were published by his heirs. As the frontispiece for 1696-editions says (to the left): published by the late Merian's heirs: »Matth. Merians Sel. Erben«.

The entire content is (with a very few variations in the spelling) word for word the same as in the 1649-edition, including Merian's greetings to his cousin, January 1st 1649.

The edition to the right is in French, but was also published by Merian's heirs: »des Héritiers de l'auteur« (it seems there was no frontispiece for this edition). Surprisingly it was neither published in France, nor in Frankfurt (where the plates resided both before and after), nor in Basel, but in Berlin.

Later on, the plates were published in Frankfurt by Johann Benjamin Andrea and Heinrich Hort. Some of these publications are without a year, while others sport the year 1725.


As mentioned, Merian is considered to be the person who has made the most complete and reliable representation of the dance of death in Basel. He has, however, often deviated from the original, which is unavoidable when a 60 meters long, 200 years old mural is to be divided into 42 copper plates.

We can see this when we compare pope and emperor with Hans Bock's drawing, and when we compare Merian's cook and abbot with other witnesses.

In 1744 Merian's plates were copied by Jacques-Antony Chovin

Merian 1621: TodtenTantz
Isaiah and Job
Merian 1621: Isaiah and Job
Merian 1621: Preacher
Merian 1621: Ossuary
Merian 1621: Pope
Merian 1621: Emperor
Merian 1621: Empress
Merian 1621: King
Merian 1621: Queen
Merian 1621: Cardinal
Merian 1621: Bishop
Merian 1621: Duke
Merian 1621: Duchess
Merian 1621: Count
Merian 1621: Abbot
Merian 1621: Knight
Merian 1621: Lawyer
Merian 1621: Senator
Merian 1621: Canon
Merian 1621: Physician
Merian 1621: Nobleman
Merian 1621: Noblewoman
Merian 1621: Merchant
Merian 1621: Abbess
Merian 1621: Cripple
Merian 1621: Hermit
Young man
Merian 1621: Young man
Merian 1649: Usurer
Young woman
Merian 1621: Young woman
Merian 1621: Musician
Merian 1621: Herald
Merian 1621: Mayor
Merian 1621: Executioner
Merian 1621: Fool
Merian 1621: Peddler
Blind man
Merian 1621: Blind man
Merian 1621: Jew
Merian 1621: Heathen
Heathen woman
Merian 1621: Heathen woman
Merian 1621: Cook
Merian 1621: Peasant
Merian 1621: Painter
Mother and child
Merian 1621: Mother and child
Adam and Eve
Merian 1621: Adam and Eve
Memento Mori
Merian 1621: Memento Mori
Double portrait
Merian 1621: Double portrait
Young woman
Merian 1649: Young woman
Merian 1615: Basel
Merian 1615: Klingental
Merian 1615: Grossbasel
Merian 1700: Cardinal
Merian 1700: Lawyer
Merian 1696: Physician
Merian 1700: Merchant
Merian 1696: Mother
Adam and Eve
Merian 1700: Adam and Eve
Merian 1621: Usurer
Todten-Tantz 1621
Merian 1621: Todten-Tantz 1621
Pope, 1621
Merian 1621: Pope, 1621
Todten-Tantz 1625
Merian 1625: Todten-Tantz 1625
Todten-Tantz 1696
Merian 1695: Todten-Tantz 1696
Merian, Dance
Merian 1698: Merian, Dance
Todten-Tantz 1725
Merian 1725: Todten-Tantz 1725

External links

Further information