Basel: The Pope

The Pope
Basel's dance of death, The Pope

Todt zum Bapst.
KOmm heiliger Vatter werther Mann,
   Ein Vortantz müßt jhr mit mir han:
Der Ablaß euch nicht hilfft darvon,
   Das zweyfach Creutz vnd dreyfach Kron.

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.

HEilig war ich auff Erd genandt,
   Ohn GOtt der höchst führt ich mein Stand:
Der Ablaß thät mir gar wol lohnen,
   Nun wil der Todt mein nicht verschonen.

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.
Heidelberg's block book, The pope
Heidelberg's  block book, The pope

The dance starts, as all proper dances of death, with the pope, who is the mightiest mortal on Earth. The pope's triple crown symbolizes his power over Heaven, Earth and Hell.

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).

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 portrayal of the pope is negative: He 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 pope himself claims that his power is only exceeded by God. Or does he? When I translate »Ohn GOtt« as "Next to God", I am following Gert Kaiser ("Der Tanzende Tod", page 199): »bis auff Gott« and the two official English translations at the bottom of this page: »Next God« and »God excepted«. This also the way to read the pope in Füssen.

But as Rolf Paul Dreier points out ("Der Totentanz - ein Motiv", page 194), the text can also be read as if the Pope has conducted a godless office without God the Highest. This interpretation is followed in the official French translation: »Regnant au nom de Dieu, je gouvernais sans lui;«, and by Chatto ("A Treatise on Wood Engraving", page 393): »From God my power never came«.

Of Popes and Double Crossers

Kleinbasel, Pope
Büchel, Pope
Büchel: The pope with cross
Basels dance of death, The pope

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).

Hans Bock, 1596: pope with cross
Basels dance of death, The pope

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.

Büchel: The bald Death.
Büchel, Death and the pope
Hieronymus Hess draws Death with a garland.
Hess: Death and the pope

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
The first to dance along with me;
Indulgence helps you not, lay down
Your double cross and triple crown.

On earth my name was Holiness,
Next God mine was the highest place;
Indulgence brought me wealth in store,
But now death spares myself no more.

Translation from Hess, 1841
Death to the Pope.Answer of the Pope.

Come holy father dear to me,
A prime dance you may have you see,
Indulgences help's you not away
Nor cross nor triple crown I say.

Holy was I call'd upon Earth,
God excepted had I the highest worth,
The indulgences greatty rewarded me
Now death w'ont spare me as you see.


Various Artists

Merian (1621)
Merian 1621: Pope
Chovin (1744)
Chovin 1744: Pope
Büchel (1768)
Büchel 1768: Pope
Büchel (1773)
Büchel 1773: Pope
Büchel (1773)
Büchel 1773: Pope
Girardet (1786)
Girardet 1786: Pope
Feyerabend (1806)
Feyerabend 1806: Pope
Hess (1841)
Hess 1841: Pope
Hess (1841)
Hess 1841: Pope
Hess (1843)
Hess 1843: Pope
Hess (1845)
Hess 1845: Pope
Beck (1852)
Beck 1852: Pope
Stuckert (1858)
Stuckert 1858: Pope

Footnotes: (1) (2)

Opening dance. . .: A "Vortantz" is a dance at the beginning by the first (leading) couple, who open the dance.
one exception. . .: The exception is the book Der Todendantz and it should be remembered that this book contains many variations that seem to be the invention of the author.

In this book, Death's two last lines to the pope go: »Ewr Kron, gewalt und hochheit groß, Hilfft nicht für mein tödtlich geschoß«.