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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1649 Matthew Merian bought the plates back, revised them and added an considerable amount of new material:
An 8-pages dedication to Merian's cousin, Onuphrio Merian, who was a member of Basel's senate. The dedication was written January 1st 1649 and Merian calls it a new year's present ('New=Jahrs=Geschencke') to his cousin.
Merian laments that they haven't seen each other for decades, and reminds him that they were born the same year. Therefore both of them would probably have to step into the dance of death more or less at the same time, although not necessarily the same year. (Matthew Merian died the following year).
Then follows a 20-pages preface with a summary of the mural's history. Thus Merian becomes an important historic witness and he informs us that the mural was created after a plague epidemic had struck a church council in the town.
Merian was probably the first to associate the dance of death as a genre with the Black Death, but it should be remembered that when Merian wrote this preface, 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.
Twelve pages with a description of the city of Basel. This account was written by Enea Silvio, who later became Pope Pius II.
The dance of death. Merian added sky and clouds (E.g. the picture of the pope to the left and right) and he made the usurer's Death darker, to match the text: »A black Death is your travelling companion«.
Two plates with the names of those who had paid for two earlier restaurations of the mural. These are rather confusing. Gross has the same plates (pp. 439 and 440 of the 1623-edition).
Four pages with "Reflections on mortality".
A new copper plate: Memento Mori.
43 pages with quotes from the Bible and church fathers grouped into subjects such as Death, funerals, Judgment Day, Hell, etc.
30 pages with two sermons by Cæcilius Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and John Chrysostom.
The same two sermons were almost inventory in the various editions of Holbein's dance of death since 1542 and — what may be more to the point — in those copies that Birckmann's heirs published in Cologne.
Finally there is space for a poem of 8 lines where the pomp of mortal humans is compared to the peacock's feathers: »Der Pfaw stoltziert vnd prangt […]«.
This poem was written by Caspar Scheydt for Birckmann's Holbein-copies. This means that Merian must have had access to one of Birckmann's publications. Incidentally Eberhard Kieser included the same poen in his 1617-edition.
The book ends with another new copper plate: A double portrait.
The text is available here: Todten-Tantz, 1649.
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