Todt zum Bapst.
Death to The Pope|
Come holy father, worthy man,
You must have the opening dance(1) with me.
The indulgence will not help you against it,
[and neither will] the double cross and triple crown.
I was called holy on earth,
Next to God I had the highest position.
The indulgence has profited me quite well.
Now Death will not spare me.
The dance starts, as all proper dances of death, with the pope, who is the mightiest mortal on Earth. As he says himself, his power is only exceeded by God. The pope's triple crown symbolizes his power over Heaven, Earth and Hell.
According to Merian's introduction the pope should be a portrait of Felix V, who were antipope around 1440, when the mural was painted. This is hardly probable and in any case it's clear that the mural has been changed during the various renovations - particularly after the Reformation: The pope admits he's made a mint on selling indulgences, Death taunts the pope because his letters of indulgences are worthless, and there's a letter of indulgence lying about among the rubble and bones.
The picture of Death, who has strapped a drum around his waist, while fetching the pope, is reminiscent of the pope from Heidelberg's block book (picture to the left).
Death alludes to the pope's double cross: »Das zweyfach Creutz vnd dreyfach Kron«. Normally it's the patriarch, who carries the double cross: in Heidelberg: »Das czwefache crewcze loth fallen […] Ich habe das czwefache crewcze getragen«, and in the manuscript known as CPG 314: »Ich han das zwifach kreuz getragen«. In Kleinbasel it's also the patriarch who carries the double cross: »Ich han das hi […] tzwifach crutz getragen«
In Basel however, the patriarch has been replaced by a cardinal (with a single cross) and all written sources — with the exception of one(2) — agree with Merian that Death comments on the pope's double cross.
So Merian has the majority of written sources on his side as far as the text goes. but Merian has gone one step further and has also pictured the pope with a double cross — and in this he doesn't get much support. In Kleinbasel (to the left) the pope carries a single cross, so this is presumably what the pope looked like originally in (Groß)basel. In the same way, Büchel shows that the pope in Großbasel had a single cross (picture to the right).
All this could be explained away. Maybe Kleinbasel wasn't an exact copy of the mural in Basel, and maybe the mural in Basel was altered (or destroyed) before Büchel saw it in 1773. But fortunately we have one more witness, Hans Bock:
The picture to the right is a pen and wash drawing made by Hans Bock the Elder. The drawing is from 1596 and thus a bit older than Merian's book. The pope has an ordinary cross in this drawing, so we must conclude that the double cross is a product of Merian's imagination.
Merian shows that Death has a garland on his head, while Büchel (to the left) paints Death without any "finery". Who's right? If we are to trust Hans Bock, then Merian is right this time. On the other hand, Merian and Büchel agree that Death looks away from the Pope, while Hans Bock lets Death turn his head towards the Pope.
In Hieronymus Hess' lithography (to the right), the little garland has become a shaggy forest.
A final detail is that even though Death plays the drum in Kleinbasel, he says: »Her der bopst Merct vff der pfiffen ton« (= "Mr. Pope, notice the tone of the fife"). So picture and text don't agree. In Heidelberg Death says: »Her bobist merkt off meyner pawken don« (= "Mr. Pope, notice the tone of my kettledrums").
|English translation from Beck, 1852|
|Death to the Pope.||The Pope's reply.|
Come, holy father, you shall be
On earth my name was Holiness,
|Translation from Hess, 1841|
|Death to the Pope.||Answer of the Pope.|
Come holy father dear to me,
Holy was I call'd upon Earth,
Footnotes: (1) (2)
In this book, Death's two last lines to the pope go: »Ewr Kron, gewalt und hochheit groß, Hilfft nicht für mein tödtlich geschoß«.