Demolition of the Wall

Feyerabend: The church with wall.
Feyerabend, Church
Rudolf Feyerabend: 5 and 6 August 1805.
Feyerabend, Destruction

The mural was renovated for the last time in 1703, after which it began to deteriorate. The contemporary travelogues tell us, how the dance of death in Basel still fascinated the guests of the city, even though dances of death had gone out of fashion, and even if the merits of the mural as a piece of art were wanting.

In 1760 a traveling painter arrived, by name Joseph Visconti, who offered the city council to paint the dance of death anew à fresco. Visconti told that he knew the secret behind protecting murals against damp, and therefore his new painting would resist moisture damage for as long as the wall stood, and for the next 200 years it would look like new.

Daniel Burckhardt-Wildt: 5 August 1805
Fragment, Destruction

The council rejected Mr. Visconti's offer, for which we should be glad. Otherwise Büchel wouldn't have been able to produce his copies in watercolor in 1773.

Visconti traveled on, but unfortunately the problems didn't disappear along with him. It wasn't only the damp that was the problem: It was also wind and weather, and in particular the boys on the street who loved to throw stones and lumps of earth through the grate that protected the painting.

The mural remained one of the city's greatest attractions, but not all guests were duly impressed. Here is a report by a Scottish visitor from the 1770'ies:

Feyerabend: Demolition of the wall, 5 August 1805.
Feyerabend, Destruction

We were also conducted to the dismal gallery, upon whose walls, what is called Holben's Death's Dance, is represented. The colours having been long exposed to the air are now quite faded, which I can scarce think is much to be regretted, for the plan of the piece is so wretched, that the finest execution could hardly prevent it from giving disgust.

A skeleton, which represents Death, leads off, in a dancing attitude, people of both sexes, of all ages, and of every condition, from the emperor to the beggar. All of them display the greatest unwillingness to accompany their hideous partner, who, regardless of tears, expostulations, and bribes, draws them along.

You will take notice, that there is a Death for each character, which occasions a nauseous repetition of the same figure; and the reluctance marked by the different people who are forced to this hated minuet, is in some accompanied with grimaces so very ridiculous, that one cannot refrain from smiling, which surely is not the effect the painter intended to produce. — If he did, of all the contrivances that ever were thought of to put people in good-humour, his must be allowed the most extraordinary.

(John Moore, A View of Society and Manners in France, Switzerland, and Germany, 1779, vol. 1, pp. 357-358)

At the end of 1804 a group of citizens contacted the council and suggested that the wall should be torn down. The wall was a "scandal", it gave off bad airs, and it was a hindrance to the traffic. If the wall and the mural were to be renovated it would cost a terrible lot of money, whereas a demolition would cost almost nothing, if the tiles, woodwork and metal were sold from the pent roof that covered the mural.

Constantin Guise: Demolition of the wall.
Fragment, Guise
Merkwürdiger Abend in Basel, 6. August 1805. Anonymous, maybe by Lukas Vischer?
Fragment, Merkwürdiger abend

While the council took their time and contemplated the tempting offer, the neighbours started acting on their own. Monday 5th August 1805 in the evening they began to tear down the wall and carried tiles and wood home. On the following evening, Tuesday 6th August, the "work" continued.

The pictures on this page must be labeled as fantasy. On Burckhardt-Wildt's picture (above to the left) one clearly sees the individual dancers: (from the left) abbess, physician, herald, senator, young woman, peasant and Adam and Eve. This sequence has nothing to do with the mural, which shows, that the scene has been more or less invented.

The scene "Merkwürdiger Abend" (to the right) is supposed to take place on 6th august, but then one wonders why there is still a porch roof, when it is missing on Burckhardt-Wildt's picture from the 5th. It must truly have been a "strange evening".

The picture to the left is by Constantin Guise. Guise lived 1811-1858, so he wasn't an eyewitness to the event. It seems as he has copied an old picture of the church, e.g. the one by Feyerabend (top, left), which in turn is probably a copy of a watercolor by Büchel.

Naturally this piracy and destruction of the city's historic painting and tourist attraction caused anger in the rest of the town. The council performed hearings, but almost all those who were interrogated told the same story: They had taken home almost nothing, and they had seen almost nobody.

The inquiry turned to dust, and nobody were punished.

Fragment. A cardinal was hiding under the queen.
Fragment, Cardinal
Fragment of herald.
Fragment, Herald

In the middle of the destruction, art-friends succeeded in salvaging some fragments of the mural. They were hidden in different places, but some disappeared. Today they are located at the historic museum of Basel. See the images below.

According to Achilles Burckhardt (who wrote in 1883) the fragments with cardinal, bishop, cripple, mayor and fool disappeared. The bishop stil exists (see images below) so he must have reappeared.

The cardinal to the left is the original cardinal, who were located under the queen, and who made his appearance when the top layers of paint were removed. The new kardinal was painted on the patriarch, but this fragment was among the lost ones.

To the right is the herald. When the top layers of paint had been removed, one could see that Death's hand used to be placed much higher that it is on the later copies by Merian and Büchel.

Resources

Much on this page is based on Achilles Burckhardt's article, Abbruch des Totentanzes in Basel in Basler Jahrbuch 1883.

Destruction
Fragment 1805: Destruction
Ossuary
Fragment 1805: Ossuary
Emperor
Fragment 1805: Emperor
Cardinal
Fragment 1805: Cardinal
Bishop
Fragment 1805: Bishop
Duke
Fragment 1805: Duke
Duchess
Fragment 1805: Duchess
Count
Fragment 1805: Count
Lawyer
Fragment 1805: Lawyer
Senator
Fragment 1805: Senator
Physician
Fragment 1805: Physician
Nobleman
Fragment 1805: Nobleman
Noblewoman
Fragment 1805: Noblewoman
Noblewoman
Fragment 1805: Noblewoman
Merchant
Fragment 1805: Merchant
Abbess
Fragment 1805: Abbess
Hermit
Fragment 1805: Hermit
Young man
Fragment 1805: Young man
Herald
Fragment 1805: Herald
Cook
Fragment 1805: Cook
Peasant
Fragment 1805: Peasant
Guise
Fragment 1805: Guise
Merkwürdiger abend
Fragment 1805: Merkwürdiger abend
Predigerkirche
Fragment 1805: Predigerkirche
Predigerkirche
Fragment 1805: Predigerkirche
Klingental
Fragment 1805: Klingental

In this Section about Basel


Up to Basel's dance of death