One might argue about, which was more famous, Death from Lübeck or "der Liebe Tod von Basel", but at least the mural in Basel was the longer. With its 60 meters (and 39 dancing couples) it was twice as long as the painting in Lübeck. The painting was from ca. 1440 and thus 20-25 years older than the painting in Lübeck.
Death from Basel was in particular made famous through the copperplates that Matthäus Merian created 1616-1649. Merian's copperplates along with copies made by Chovin, Beck and Felix Schneider were published in countless editions through several centuries and made Basel's dance of death world famous throughout Europe.
It must be remembered though, that when Merian produced his copperplates in 1616-1649 the painting was already ca. 200 years old and had gone through several restorations and changes, especially by Hans Kluber in 1568.
As a matter of fact Basel had two dances of death. In the nunnery in Kleinbasel was a copy of the dance of death from (Groß)basel. This copy had been better protected against wind, weather, vandalism and renovations, and here we can see how the dance of death in Basel must have looked originally before all the changes.
|The River Rhine divides Basel into Großbasel (top) and Kleinbasel. The arrows indicate the two dances of death.|
The text in Kleinbasel reveals that Basel's dance originally has been a variant of Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, as we for instance know it from Heidelberg's dance of death. The 24 regular participants has been expanded with 15 more: Lawyer, hermit, young man, usurer, young woman, musician, herald, mayor, executioner, fool, beguine, blind man, Jew, heathen man and woman. None of these are nobility or ecclesiasticals.
|Herald by Büchel|
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 Frölich's book is of little use, because most of the woodcuts are free interpretations of Holbein, while a skilled and conscientious artist like Büchel suffers from seeing the mural more than a 100 years later — after several renovations and at a time where parts of the painting was ruined.
For this reason I have sponsored a digitalisation of the 1649-edition of Merian's book and it can now be downloaded freely from the Danish Royal Library's site (see the page about Matthäus Merian for the address).
The starting point for this section about Basel is Merian's copperplates, but we shall continually see "what Merian is up to", evaluate his reliability and try to form an image of what the original medieval painting from ca. 1440 has been like.
In Großbasel, patriarch and archbishop have been replaced by queen and duchess, the lawyer by a councilman, the beguine by a peddler, while mother and child have given place for the painters own family, which in turn were removed later along with the painter. A muslim becomes a heathen, a Turk appears and disappears, while The Garden of Eden is expanded. Against all odds we'll tread carefully while following the painting through centuries of changing taste.