e have elsewhere seen how the printers of Mainz had subcontracted works from Quentel in Cologne. Here we shall look of some later specimens from Quentel's printery.
Francis Douce writes:
An A well cut on wood, representing Death striking a miser, who is counting his money at a table.
It occurs at fo. 5 of Quad's "fasciculus geographicus." Cologne, 1608, small folio, printed by John Buxemacher.
(Francis Douce, 1833, The Dance of Death, p. 219)
The A (to the right) is as Douce describes, but it is a fact a deal older than 1608. As an example it was printed by Behem in 1555 in Mainz (VD16 B 4735) for Quentel, which is also an example of how the Quentel printing company in Cologne would subcontract their work to the printers in Mainz.
A little earlier, Douce had described an H:
In Braunii Civitates Orbis terrarum, Par. I. No. 37, edit. 1576, there is an H, inch and ˝ square.
The subject, Death leading a Pope on horseback. It is engraved on wood with much spirit.
(Francis Douce, 1833, The Dance of Death, p. 218)
I have not succeeded in finding the H in the book Douce mentions, Number 37 is Moguntia (Mainz), Herbipolis (Würzburg) and Sedunum (Sion), but none of the editions I have seen has such an H in "Herbipolis". On the other hand, some of the editions have an S like the one to the right in "Sedunum".
But »Civitates Orbis terrarum« was printed in Cologne and Douce's description of the H fits the picture to the left perfectly. This H was often published along with the A. We have already mentioned Behem from 1555, but Quentel himself had used the A and H as early as in 1548 in »D. Ioannis Thavleri« (VD16 J 778).
In fact Behem wasn't alone in using these initials in 1555. On the present site we often run into Birckmann's heirs, who in 1555 and many years to follow had great success with their "pirated copies" of Holbein's dance of death. The same year that Behem printed Johann Wild's »Historia Sacrae Dominicae Passionis« (VD16 B 4735) in Mainz for Quentel, Birckmann published the same book in Cologne, also for Quentel (VD16 ZV 7685). It is instructive to compare these two publications to see how the two offices have handled the same text: Initials and illustrations are different; Behem displays an image with the crucified Christ between Mary and John, while Birckmann shows Jesus between the two robbers; Birckmann has his frontispiece with the fat hen, Behem has none. In contrast Quentel has made sure to lend both offices, in Mainz respectively Cologne, the woodcuts for the A and H (that we have just seen) along with his own printer's device: Samson tearing a lion apart.
Back to Douce for the third time:
In the second volume of Braun and Hogenberg Civitates orbis terrarum, and prefixed to a complimentary letter from Remaglus Lymburgus,
a physician and canon of Liege, there is an initial letter about an inch and a half square, representing a pope and an emperor playing at cards.
They are interrupted by Death,
who offers them a cup which he holds in his left hand whilst he points to them with his right. Other figures are introduced. This letter is very finely engraved on wood.
(Francis Douce, 1833, The Dance of Death, pp. 219-220)
Again Douce refers to Braun's Civitates, and again I have been unable to locate the initial in any of the editions I have checked.(1) But the letter does indeed exist, and looks precisely as described by Douce (picture to the right).
So to sum up: These three initials that Douce mentions different places all originate from the same location, viz. the printery of Quentel in Cologne. Douce hadn't discovered this, partly because his A was from a late copy, where dance of death alphabets had long since gone out of fashion, and partly because the many editions of Braun's Civitates were published under the author's own name.
More importantly there are more initials in the same series. All in all there are eleven, A, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O and T.
The first of these large woodcuts appeared in the year 1548. Until then, Quentel had used a series of putti (little angel children). The woodcuts were used until 1566, when they were phased out by a series of biblical motifs, e.g. this D. I bring most of them below on this page, for as Douce writes they are »well cut on wood«, »with much spirit« and »very finely engraved on wood«, and they were clearly executed by the same artist.
The letters belong to two different series. One with classical Roman and Greek motifs: Romans, centaurs and Hercules against the hydra.
The other contains the 11 initials where Death appear, but many other are along the same theme. In the M and the O, Death stands idly by and watches the stage. He does not need to intervene for the victim to die. The same can be said about the fight / execution in the Q: the victims will die even though Death is not portrayed.
The two men on the initial P are probably also going to meet a dismal fate. Maybe they're the killers from the letter M? A parallel can be drawn to La Vie de l'Homme, where Death first watches a robber cutting the throat of his victim and later stands before the gallows when the murderer is executed.
The E and the L from the dance of death are on the subject of the sin of gambling. The F and others could be interpreted as being about pride and luxury. To this could be added the B, with music and foolish entertainment, and the D with sexual desire (and possibly rape).
At the beginning of this page we looked at the image of the pope. There is a strange "stain" in the sky and it was there already in the very first prints. Maybe it's a fault in the woodblock?
Another damaged letter is seen on the left. It is from 1555 and in a damaged condition, but one can still see a couple of male legs and a woman stretching out her arm. Year after year the initial deteriorated until it looked as the copy to the right.
Often there are clearly scrape marks, showing that this is a conscious vandalism. I was wondering whether some prude at the Austrian National Library had used an eraser on all the "offending" images in the library.
This was in itself puzzling, for what could have provoked such a reaction? Many of the other initials- would also be deemed "offending". The letter R shows a stark naked woman being abducted by a centaur, while the I shows a woman about to thrust a sword into her naked chest.
After all, it still took something to offend people back in the 1550ies.
The theory was shot down anyway, since the copies of other libraries were defaced in a similar way. The damage then, had been done by the publisher himself.
Let me break the suspense: I succeeded in locating a single, early, undamaged copy.
One may still wonder: If this initial letter caused such offence, why was it used then?
Quentel already had a letter D showing a Roman soldier thrusting a sword into the belly of a woman in a transparent blouse (the woman, not the soldier), and in 1568 (in the book, where the D was most obliterated), another D was employed: Noah's ark resting on Mount Ararat surrounded by the corpses of countless drowned animals and humans.
We meet the same censorship with the letter T. The person in the monk's cowl has a "bird-like" face, which is reminiscent of the monsters from the dance of death in Kermaria an Iskuit, but which probably just is this artist's way of rendering a skull. The face has been erased in most editions (picture to the left).
Perhaps we have here the explanation for the strange smudge on the scene with the Pope? Maybe there has originally been some un-Christian and offensive figure here?
Eustache-Hyacinthe Langlois reproduces this initial in "Essai historique, philosophique et pittoresque sur les danses des morts", 1852, table XVII. He has found it in Théâtre des cités du monde, vol. 3 — in the introductory dedication to archbishop Ernest of Cologne as well as for foil no. 38 (Franckenberg).
I don't know if this was what Douce had in mind. It is the French edition (not the Latin), volume 3 (not 2), and a dedication to Ernest (not Remaglus Lymburgus). At any rate, the scans of the French volume aren't good enough to display, so for that reason I won't change my text.