The Ossuary

The Ossuary
Basel's dance of death, ossuary
O Mensch betracht, Und nicht veracht
Hie die Figur All Creatur
Die nimpt der Todt, Früh und spot
Gleich wie die Blum Im Feld zergoht.
Oh Man contemplate, and don't despise,
here this figure of all creatures.
Death takes them, early and late,
just like the flower in the field fades.

Emmanuel Büchel, 1773
Büchel, Preacher
Holbein's great dance of death, The bones of all men.
Holbein Proofs, Ossuary

The text compares the transitory human life with the flower in the field. This could have been an allusion to several places in the Bible, e.g. Psalm 103:15 or the Book of Job 14:2, but is probably an repetition of Isaiah Chapter 40, which we saw on a previous page: »[…] All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever«.

Kleinbasel, the charnel house
Kleinbasel, the charnel house

The text then is a continuation of the slate to the left of the preacher, and it's not the original text, because in the nunnery in Kleinbasel the author instead philosophizes over, how lords and servants look the same in death (incidentally, there's a similar text at the start of the dance in Kienzheim):

Hie richt got noch dem rechten
Die heren ligen Bi den Knechten
nvn mercket hie Bi
Welger her oder knecht gewesen si

So we have a somewhat paradoxical situation in that the text in the nunnery was addressed to lords and servants, while the publicly accessible dance in Großbasel was about flowers.

Hans Holbein, Initial A.
Holbein Alphabet, Holbein: A
In Chovins copy of Merian's copperplates there's ivy to the right of the doorway.
Chovin, Ossuary
Back to Großbasel: As Büchel's watercolour (picture above to the left) shows, the ossuary is situated to the right of the preacher. In the Middle Ages people were buried in a sheet without coffin. Once the flesh had rotted away, the bones were dug up and put into a charnel house, leaving room in the ground for new customers.

The picture of the dance of death starting in the charnel house has inspired Hans Holbein, who used the motive in both his dance of death-alphabet (picture to the right) and his great dance of death (picture above to the right).

At the museum in Basel there's still a fragment of the original mural.
This fragment shows Jesus at Judgment day.
Fragment, Ossuary
Above the doorway to the ossuary there's a painting within the painting (picture to the right), showing Jesus as judge on the Final Day with the saved to the left and sinners in the Lake of Fire to the right. This scene may have inspired the end of Holbein's dances of death, i.e. Judgment Day and initial Z. But it's also possible that the Judgment Day scene has been added during a later restoration (1614-1616), and in that case it's Holbein who has inspired the mural, and not the other way around.

English translation from Beck, 1852

O man be wise,
Do not despise
The end designed
Of all mankind.
Such is thy fate
Early or late,
Like to the flower,
That lives an hour.

Translation from Hess, 1841

O man be wise,
Hier this figure,
Do not despise,
Of every creature.
Death will take,
Soon ore late,
Like the flowers,
In the field does fade.


Read more about charnel houses / ossuaries.


Various Artists

Merian (1621)
Merian 1621: Ossuary
Chovin (1744)
Chovin 1744: Ossuary
Büchel (1768)
Büchel 1768: Ossuary
Büchel (1773)
Büchel 1773: Preacher and ossuary
Girardet (1786)
Girardet 1786: Ossuary
Fragment (1805)
Fragment 1805: Ossuary
Feyerabend (1806)
Feyerabend 1806: Ossuary
Hess (1841)
Hess 1841: Ossuary
Hess (1841)
Hess 1841: Ossuary
Beck (1852)
Beck 1852: Ossuary
Beck (1852)
Beck 1852: Ossuary
Stuckert (1858)
Stuckert 1858: Ossuary