Matthew (Matthäus) Merian (1593-1650)

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

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. The plates were published twice in 1621 and once more in 1625.

In 1649, the year before he died, Matthew Merian bought the plates back. He revised the plates and added sky and clouds (E.g. the picture of the pope to the left and right), he made the usurer's Death darker, and he added two extra copperplates (Memento Mori and double portrait) and a few edifying, Christian articles.

Also in the 1649-edition was a summary of the mural's history. Thus Merian becomes an important historic witness, but it should be remembered that when Merian wrote his commentaries, he had lived for a long time in Frankfurt. Besides, the painting was already 200 years old and its past was lost in the fogs of time.

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
Map of Basel by Merian. The arrows indicate the two dances of death.
Basel by Merian
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 where parts of the mural were ruined.

However, Merian does often deviate from the original. 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.

The 1621-edition

The frontispiece of one of the 1621-editions
Front page of the 1621-edition
This picture was included in the 1649-editions and later.
Double portrait

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.

One of the two exemplars from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek has the defect that the plates for senator and knight have been mixed up. 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.

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, painter and mother. 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?

On the positive side, these errors cancel out another error: For some reason all other editions of Merian (and also of Chovin, Beck, Stuckert / Felix and Feyerabend) have the painter before his wife and child, which is illogical, since the mother is a standard part of the High German eight-lined dance of death, while the painter is an later addition. But in this particular edition the painter is placed at the end as he should be — looking back at his creation.

The 1625-edition

Mieg has corrected all these errors in the 1625-edition, and the prints are placed recto.

On the verso-pages has been added a dialogue between Death and the dancers in Latin. 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 a more confusing explanation.

Death to the Queen
Frölich, 1588Laudismann, 1616Mieg 1625
Regalis tibi mando tori, suavissima Consors,
  Deponas MUNDI gaudia cuncta tua:
Nam defunctorum cogeris salvere catervam,
  Conjuge deserto, pignoribusque tuis.
Non nitor hoc vultus, argentum avertet & aurum:
  Sed nostras videas deliciasque volo.

Heu nemo opem mortalium
  Adest qui in his periculis
  Præstare posset unicam:
  Ubi meæ pedissequæ?
Heu dum micabat prospera
  Fortuna mecum plurimùm
  Facundum agebant otium:
  Parcas mihi, Mors, fla-gi-to.
Regalis tibi mando tori, suavissima consors,
  Deponas mundi gaudia vana tua.
Nam mortalis ad ereptos è carcere vitæ
  Perceleri, tecum jam properabo pede.
Muneribus Mors non pretiosis flectitur atra
  Omnes unde viam cogit inire suam.

Heu nemo adest Mortalium
  Qui posset hoc sævissimo
  Levare me discrimine:
  Ubi meæ pedissequæ?
Ah dum micabat prospera
  Fortuna, mecum plurimùm
  Facundum agebant otium:
  Mors parce nunc, moram dato.
Regalis tibi mando tori, suavissima Consors.
  Deponas Mundi gaudia vana tua:
Nam mortalis ad ereptos è carcere vitæ
  Perceleri tecum jam properabo pede:
Muneribus Mors non preciosis flectitur ætra:
  Omnes unde viam cogit inire suam.

Heu nemo adest mortalium,
  Qui posset hoc sævissimo
  Levare me discrimine!
  Vbi meæ pedisse quæ?
Ah dum micabat prospera
  Fortuna, mecum plurimùm
  Facundum agebant otium:
  Mors parce nunc, moram dato.
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


Further information