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), 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.
Map of Basel by Merian. The arrows indicate the two dances of death.
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.
This picture was included in the 1649-editions and later.
The 1621-edition can be downloaded from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (see external link below).
Unfortunately this copy is rather jumbled.
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.
Firstly two of the sheets are interchanged. The plate of Adam and Eve
is marked with an "L" at the bottom of the page,
which means that this sheet belongs at the end.
The plate with the preacher has "O Mensch" at the bottom, which indicates
that the pages with the ossuary should be placed right after the preacher — just like in all other editions.
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. This also explains why
the engravings appear on the left side (verso) instead of the right side (recto).
When all these interchanges are taken into account,
there's still the oddity that the A-sheet consists of 5 verso-pages
(preacher, ossuary, pope, emperor and empress),
while the L-sheet only contains Adam & Eve and the plaque with the names of the donors of the mural.
Neither is there any dialogue for the child, even though this should appear in one of the two 1621-editions.