Basel: Mother and Child

Mother and Child
Basel's dance of death, Mother and child

Todt zur Maleri:
ACh Fräwlein lassen ewer Klagen,
   Tantzen dem Kind nach mit der Waglen:
Dann jhr möcht mir hie nicht entfliehen,
   Den Gasthut wil ich euch abziehen.

Death to the Painteress.
Alas, little Madam,(1) cease your complaining.
Dance after the child with the cradle,
for here you cannot flee from me.
I will pull the guest-hat off you.(2)

Die Maleri
ICh hab mich allezeit ergeben
   In Todt, hoff aber ewigs Leben:
Wiewol der Todt mich greifft hart an.
   Nimpt mich mit Kind, vnd sampt dem Mann.

The Painteress.
I have always given myself
to Death, but I hope for eternal life.
Even though Death grabs hard unto me.
Take me with child and also the husband.
Kleinbasel, Mother.
Büchel, Mother
Frölich / Scharffenberg 1588
Mother with child comes before the painter.
Scharffenberg, Painter

Now the time has come for the painter's wife. Frölich calls her "The child's mother" ("Des Kindts Mütter"), but in Der Todendantz she is "Des Malers Fraw", and the illustration from the 1588-edition of Frölich's book (picture to the right) makes it clear that she is Barbara Hallerin, widow after Hans Klauber and that the boy is their son, Ulrich Klauber.

If we compare with the mural in Kleinbasel (picture to the left), the mother is alone with "her" Death, while the child is in separate picture. In Kleinbasel Death doesn't fondle the mother, as he does in Großbasel (picture above).

The present site follows Merian's copperplates, even though Merian for inscrutable reasons lets the painter appear before his family. The same thing is true for Chovin and Beck, who copy Merian, and for Feyerabend and Otto Stuckert, who copy Chovin's copies of Merian.

This is probably just a banal, careless error. Mother and child are a part of the dance of death itself, and they appear in Kleinbasel, Heidelberg's block book and other versions of the high German dance of death. In contrast, the painter is a later addition. He is standing outside the scenery, looking back at his creation, while Death points to the left towards the painter's wife and child: »Even if you have portrayed me terribly, you will soon have the same shape - with child and wife«.

Our oldest witness all confirm that this sequence is wrong. Iselin's handwriting from 1577(3), Der Todendantz from ca. 1580 and Frölich from 1581 all agree that the painter comes last (but before the Turk). This is also true for Gross' copy from 1623 and Tonjola's from 1661.

In Frölich's book from 1588 the painter and his family were portrayed on one single woodcut (picture to the right). The mother and son unequivocally come before the painter, while Death points left towards the painter's family.

Concerning the picture's position and longevity, see the page about Adam & Eve in Paradise.

English translation from Beck, 1852
Death to the Painters wife.The Painter's wife's reply.

Cease now, fond wife, your grief so wild,
And follow in my dance your child;
No more you can escape from me,
So with your dress-cap I'l make free.

O Death I've long been quite resigned
Yet hope eternal life to find
Though his dire grasp me sorely proves
And me with man and child removes.


Various Artists

Merian (1621)
Merian 1621: Mother and child
Merian (1696)
Merian 1696: Mother
Chovin (1744)
Chovin 1744: Mother and child
Büchel (1768)
Büchel 1768: Mother
Feyerabend (1806)
Feyerabend 1806: Mother
Beck (1852)
Beck 1852: Mother and child
Stuckert (1858)
Stuckert 1858: Mother and child
Curmer (1858)
Curmer 1858: Mother

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

Fräwlein. . .: It would be rude to translate Fräwlein with "Miss", considering that she's the mother of a big boy. In Der Todendantz Death says, »Ach fraw laß ewer klagen sein«.
guest-hat. . .: to pull the guest-hat off somebody means that you will no longer treat them as guests.

The meaning is not very obvious. Maybe it has something to do with people only being guests on Earth, until we return home to Paradise? Or maybe it's simply because Death is wild about pulling people's hats off — just look at the abbot, the councilman and the peasant.

Iselin . . .: manuscript from 1577 by Ludwig Iselin; transcription and analysis by Mischa von Perger, Totentanz-Studien, pages 93-132.