Demolition of the Wall

Feyerabend: The church with wall.
Feyerabend, Church
Rudolf Feyerabend: 5 and 6 August 1805. "Dessinée d'après nature"
Feyerabend, Destruction

The story of the dance of death in Basel is almost the reverse of that of la Danse Macabre in Paris. In Paris they know the date of the execution of the new mural, while the citizens of Basel can only guess at around 1435-1441.

When it comes to when the mural perished the situation is diametrically opposite: Scholars of la Danse Macabre guess at random (or so it would appear) at the years 1529, 1634 and 1669, whereas for Basel the exact date is known. In Basel they know not only when this happened, but also who were behind it, and who took how many boards and how many tiles. We have several depictions of the demolition, and some of these pictures were created by people who had participated at the event, "Dessinée d'après nature". To this day there are still 19 fragments of the wall displayed at the historic museum of Basel.

The mural in Basel 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.

Fragment, Demolition

In 1760 a travelling painter arrived, by name Joseph Visconti, who offered the city council to paint the dance of death anew à fresco. Visconti declared 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.

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 watercolour in 1773.

Visconti travelled 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.

Demolition of the wall
Fragment, Predigerkirche
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 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 (below to the right). 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 drawing 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.

The surviving fragments

Constantin Guise: Demolition of the wall.
Fragment, Guise
Guise: Remains of the mural in fromt of the wall
Fragment, Demolition

Amidst the destruction, art-lovers succeeded in salvaging separate pieces of the mural. To begin with, 23 fragments were saved and distributed between seven art-friends.

The picture to the left shows how a few fragments have been placed against the wall (middle of picture). The detail to the right reveals that the first piece contains Death and the pope, but this must be regarded as artistic license (Guise was born in 1811 and thus not an eyewitness; his painting is from 1846). None of the surviving fragments show Death (except for a hand), and the pope is not among these fragments.

The piece to the right seems to be the queen. The queen was in fact saved, but in 1965 the top layers of paint were removed to reveal the original cardinal below.

Guise: A glimpse of the dance
Fragment, Basel, Demolition

To the left we get a glimpse of the remains of the dance. One can see abbess, cripple, young man, usurer and young man. Through the doorway we can see the painter's leg and his wife and son.

Again we must recall that Guise was not an eyewitness. The hermit is missing between the cripple and the young man, and long time before the demolition the painter and his family had disappeared and were replaced by Adam and Eve in Paradise.

Daniel Burckhardt-Wildt: 5 August 1805
Fragment, Destruction

In contrast the scene to the right was painted by an eyewitness. Daniel Burckhardt-Wildt was one of the seven art-friends who saved some of the fragments. He has positioned himself in the foreground among the other art-friends and uses his stick to point to his initials and the date at the bottom of the painting: "D.B. 5. Aug. 1805".

Several scenes from the dance are clearly seen on the wall (from the left): abbess, physician, herald, senator, young woman, peasant and Adam and Eve. This sequence has nothing to do with the mural, and why are there only seven scenes out of ca. 39?

Moni Engel (see external link below) makes the interesting observation that the first four of these seven scenes (abbess, physician, herald, senator) were among those six fragments that ended up belonging to Daniel Burckhardt-Wildt. Moni Engel therefore suggests that Burckhardt had visited the mural before the event to make a sketch, and that he had included in this sketch those seven scenes that he had reserved for himself. When the night had passed, the young woman along with Adam and Eve had perished, maybe they disintegrated when loosened from the wall? Burckhardt therefore had to obtain two other fragments: hermit and merchant, and maybe he had to trade the peasant with Peter Vischer, who ended up owning this fragment?

Obviously this hypothesis is very speculative, and it suffers from the weakness that the scene with Adam and Eve with the parrot in the top, right corner seems to be copied after Adam and Eve. Later on the scene was made much broader and the parrot was placed on a branch in the foreground as shown on Feyerabend's watercolour from 1805. So Burckhardt hasn't copied this scene from the mural the evening before the wall was torn down.

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

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

The cardinal to the left is the original cardinal, who was located under the queen, and who made his appearance when the top layers of paint were removed. The new cardinal was painted on the patriarch, but this fragment was among those that were lost by 1883.

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 than it is on the later copies by Merian and Büchel.


Fragment 1805: Destruction
Fragment 1805: Ossuary
Fragment 1805: Emperor
Fragment 1805: Cardinal
Fragment 1805: Bishop
Fragment 1805: Duke
Fragment 1805: Duchess
Fragment 1805: Count
Fragment 1805: Lawyer
Fragment 1805: Senator
Fragment 1805: Physician
Fragment 1805: Nobleman
Fragment 1805: Noblewoman
Fragment 1805: Noblewoman
Fragment 1805: Merchant
Fragment 1805: Abbess
Fragment 1805: Hermit
Young man
Fragment 1805: Young man
Fragment 1805: Herald
Fragment 1805: Cook
Fragment 1805: Peasant
Merkwürdiger abend
Fragment 1805: Merkwürdiger abend
Fragment 1805: Predigerkirche
Fragment 1805: Predigerkirche
Fragment 1805: Klingental
Fragment 1805: Predigerkirche
Fragment 1805: Demolition
Fragment 1805: Merkwürdiger
Fragment 1843: Predigerkirche
Fragment 1870: Predigerkirche
Fragment 1846: Guise
Fragment 1846: Demolition
Basel, Demolition
Fragment 1846: Basel, Demolition

In this Section about Basel