Count Zimmern's Vergänglichkeitsbuch

Zimmern, Zimmern, Spiegelbuch
Zimmern, Gravedigger

Wilhelm Werner count of Zimmern (1485-1575) was an art interested gentleman. He had a large collection of printed books and manuscripts in his "Wunderkammer". Some of these books were bought, while others were copied and illustrated by the count himself.

Unfortunately, a large part of the collection perished at a time when there was a war between Emperor Charles V and France's Henry II. The count attempted to bring his possessions to safety in Strassburg, and all his manuscripts were packed in barrels, but the wagon accidentally fell into the Kinzig River. The barrels were later recovered, but when the count was finally notified of the accident, only a third of the manuscripts were usable.(1)

He also created a number of manuscripts himself, and one of these was the so-called "Vergänglichkeitsbuch" — i.e. "Book of Transience", wherein the count compiled 64 texts and 116 pen-and-wash paintings on the subject of the perishable earthly life: Contemptus mundi, contempt of this world.

Some of the 64 texts were copies of well-known works, like for instance the "Spiegelbuch", which itself was a collection of texts (picture to the left). Another one was the legend of the three living and the three dead. The most known section is his copy of "Der Doten Dantz mit Figuren", which is known as the "Zimmerischer Totentanz".

Other poems were authored by the poetic count himself. For instance, an 8-page poem contains an acrostic with the first letter of each line spelling out: »Wilhelm Wernher Grave und Her zuo Zimbern Her zuo Wildenstayn kayserlicher Mayestat Kammerrichter Amptzverwalter hat dises Gedicht zuo Wimpfen gemacht in dem Iar als man zalt nach Cristi Geburt«. The poem ends with a chronogram giving the year 1539.(2)

Towards the end of the book, after over 500 pages, comes another poem authored by the count himself: »Ain anderer sprüch den ich W. W. selber hab gemacht«, where the first letter in each line once again makes an acrostic: »Wilhelm Wernher Grave unt Her zuo Zimbern Her zuo Wildenstain«.

Johannes, 1548
Zimmern, Johannes Zimmern
The end of the dance of death
Zimmern, Zimmern, Ossuary

The book was intended for personal use, and there are pictures of Count Zimmern himself, his closest relatives and their coat of arms. One picture (page 145r) shows Death standing on a grave slab (picture to the left). The grave belongs to the count's brother, Johannes: »Anno domini / 1548 obyt Generosus / comes Johannes«.

A number of pictures show his first wife, Katharina von Lupfen, who died after only four months of marriage in 1521: E.g. one of the last pictures in the book (page 237v) shows the count as a young, beardless man in a pious prayer along with his wife. By contrast, there are no pictures of his next wife, Amalia von Leuchtenberg, with whom he had been married for 22 years.

However, all these years, 1521, 1539 and 1548 only tell us when Count Zimmern started his book at the earliest. According to the latest research, the book came into being in the 1540s (Christian Kiening) or "shortly after 1554" (Gisela Fischer-Heetfeld, see external link).

On the other hand, these years are quite sufficient to answer a question about Werner von Zimmern's sources: He lived late enough to have been able to read the printed editions of "Der Doten Dantz mit Figuren" from the 1488-edition, the 1492-edition as well as the 1520-edition.

A few scholars speculate whether there might have been an old version of Der Doten Dantz mit Figuren among the ruined manuscripts of the Count's "Wunderkammer", which was even older than the printed books. Maybe the very purpose of the "Book of Transience" has been to preserve surviving texts from the spoiled materials?(3)

However, these scholars are a minority. The consensus is that the count has used one of the printed editions as the only source for his dance of death, and that all changes and additions are his own invention.

All ranks
Zimmern, Zimmern, All ranks
The child(ren)
Zimmern, Zimmern: Child

The dance of death consists of 41 scenes, just like "Der Doten Dantz mit Figuren", and most of the images appear to be copies of this book, although Werner von Zimmern would typically add landscapes in the background. Take for instance the picture to the left, where Death points towards the cemetery, even though there is no background at all in the woodcut of all ranks.

The scene with the child has been changed so there are now two children (picture to the right), but this could be because the text is illogical. The child is told that »it's better that you die in the cradle«, and the child replies: »Ah, ah, ah, I cannot speak yet / Today born, today I must leave«, but in spite of this the woodcut of the child portrays a child that is easily capable of standing up and play with his windmill, and there is no cradle to be seen. Werner von Zimmern's picture, in contrast, shows two children: A newborn baby in the cradle and a bigger child with a windmill.

The maid
Zimmern, Zimmern: Maid
Zimmern, Zimmern, Innkeeper

Some images differ, and here it might be tempting to think that Werner von Zimmern has had some old, unknown copy of "Mittelrheinischer Totentanz" lying in his "Wunderkammer".

On the left, the maid is presented with a mirror, which is not the case for the maid in Doten Dantz. But Death does hold a mirror in Kassel. This could suggest that Count Zimmern and the manuscript in Kassel are based on the same unknown source.

But as Susanne Warda points out, Death as a mirror is a widespread metaphor, used among other places in "Spiegelbuch" (mirror book) and for the noblewoman in Basel.

The innkeeper (picture to the right) deviates too, but this is not because of influence from Kassel, for as Susanne Warda points out, Count Zimmern in this case deviates from Kassel as well as from Doten Dantz. These two sources both show how the innkeeper has raised his ale-stake with a hoop, to advertise that beer and wine is being served on the premises.

Zimmern, Zimmern, Count
Zimmern, Zimmern, Gambler

The count (to the left) looks like the count in Doten Dantz, except that he has a beard like count von Zimmern himself and the flag has been altered from three leopards to Count Zimmern's own heraldic weapon: A lion with a halberd.

The gambler seems to have one hand amputated even though the text gives no explanation of this.

The eight-lined verses are consistently expanded to 14 lines. There is no reason to believe that the added text originates from anybody else than the poetic count. He added a few words to make the text easier to understand / less ambiguous, he changed obsolete words, and he added six lines expanding the theme of each verse.


Today there are no less than three copies of Werner von Zimmern's Vergänglichkeitsbuch. One of these is the lavish Donaueschingen 123.

Wernher von Zimmern's Book of Transience

Zimmern, canon
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, canon
Zimmern, Count
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, Count
Zimmern, armour bearer
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, armour bearer
Zimmern: Child
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern: Child
Zimmern, Innkeeper
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, Innkeeper
Zimmern, Gambler
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, Gambler
Zimmern, Usurer
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, Usurer
Zimmern: Maid
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern: Maid
Zimmern, Thief
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, Thief
Zimmern, All ranks
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, All ranks
Zimmern, Ossuary
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, Ossuary
Zimmern 1550: Gravedigger
Johannes Zimmern
Zimmern 1550: Johannes Zimmern
Zimmern, Spiegelbuch
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, Spiegelbuch
Zimmern, Hermit
Zimmern 1550: Zimmern, Hermit


Further information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

Geschichte der Grafen von Zimmern, Heinrich Ruckgaber, 1840, page 219.

1539 . . .: The last line goes: »Et cætera zwai creuz Cristi sprüch. xxvi. amen«. If you add up the Roman numerals the result is 1539.

At least according to the experts since 1840. Personally, I can see why a "W" (= 2 × V) would give 10, but I don't see why the "Z" in "creuz" gives 100, and why the "Z" in "zwai" isn't counted then.

Besides, it doesn't say "sprüch .xxvi", but "sprich .xxvj", so if desired the numbers can add up to 1 (or 101) more.

Stephan Cosacchi: »Auch die Todes-Texte der Totentanz-Handschriften wurden höchstwahrscheinlich nach den alten, kostbaren Manuskripten der "Wunderkammer" kopiert«.

Makabertanz, 1965, page 543. (Link: Makabertanz)