Basel: The Physician

The Physician
Basel's dance of death, The physician

Todt zum Doctor:
HErr Doctor b'schawt die Anatomey
   An mir, ob sie recht g'machet sey:
Dann du hast manchen auch hing'richt,
   Der eben gleich, wie ich jetzt sicht.

Death to The Physician
Mr. Physician, inspect the anatomy
on me, whether it's made right.
Because you have also executed many,
who now look exactly like I.

Der Doctor:
ICh hab mit meinem Wasser bschawen
   Geholffen beyde Mann vnd Frawen:
Wer b'schawt mir nun das Wasser myn,
   Ich muß jetzt mit dem Todt dahin.

The Physician.
I have with my urine-inspecting(1)
helped both men and women.
Who inspects my water now?
I must now [go] away with Death.
Kleinbasel, Physician
Büchel, Physician
Vesalius, 1543
Vesalius, 1534

This picture is the only one where Death is portrayed as a skeleton. The skeleton is relatively correctly rendered, which proves that it is a more recent addition. People in the Middle Ages simply didn't have that kind of anatomical knowledge (for an example, see Holbein's blunder).

If we look at the corresponding picture in Kleinbasel (to the left), Death is the same skinny cadaver as the one that fetches everybody else in the dance. The text in Kleinbasel doesn't mention anything about "inspecting the anatomy".

When Kluber renovated the mural in 1568, it was 25 years since Andreas Vesalius had published his famous anatomy book De Humani Corporis Fabrica in Basel (picture to the right). It's apparent that Kluber has copied the image from this book.

But one thing is still not "made right in the anatomy". In spite of countless restorations and improvements, and in spite of Death being transformed from an emaciated cadaver to a skeleton, Death's right hand (the one that grabs the physician) is still a left hand — in both Klein- and Großbasel.

In Großbasel (above) Death has stolen the holster for the urine glass, while the physician has dropped the glass, which lies in the right side of the picture.

Büchel, 1773: physician
Büchel, Physician
Büchel, Physician

A dagger is clearly visible through the physician's sleeve in Büchel's watercolor from 1773.

In 1773 the painting was over 300 years old and renovated many times, but the skeleton still had two left hands.

English translation from Beck, 1852
Death to the Doctor.The Doctor's reply.

Doctor! look at my skeleton
And tell me if 't is all well done;
Many have been dispatch'd by thee
Who all do now resemble me.

Thro' skill in water long renown'd
I've help for man and woman found;
But who will mine inspect, I pray?
Now that Death calls myself away.

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

Sir doctor behold the anatomy
If it bee well done on me,
Many one where dispatch't by thee,
Who even now ressembles me.

I have with my viewing the water
Helped both mother and father;
Who views now my water pray?
As I must now with death away.


Various Artists

Merian (1621)
Merian 1621: Physician
Merian (1696)
Merian 1696: Physician
Chovin (1744)
Chovin 1744: Physician
Büchel (1768)
Büchel 1768: Physician
Büchel (1773)
Büchel 1773: Physician
Fragment (1805)
Fragment 1805: Physician
Feyerabend (1806)
Feyerabend 1806: Physician
Hess (1841)
Hess 1841: Physician
Beck (1852)
Beck 1852: Physician
Stuckert (1858)
Stuckert 1858: Physician

Footnotes: (1)

Physician med urine glass from the dance of death in Lübeck.
Physician with urine sample
urine-inspecting. . .: the examination of the urine was an indispensable part of the medical art in the Middle Ages. See the picture to the right.