»Emblems of mortality; representing, by numerous engravings, death seizing all ranks and conditions of people. Imitated from a painting in the cemetery of the Dominican church, at Basil, in Switzerland« is an American copy of John Bewick's copy of Holbein. There was at least three editions: 1801, 1810(1) and 1846.
The title of the book repeats the age-old mistake, which probably originated with Georg Scharffenberg: that Holbein should have had anything to do with the dance of death on the cemetery-wall of the Dominican church in Basel.
One cannot blame the American publisher for reiterating the mistake from the English title, but what he can be blamed for, is that he doesn't try to clarify the misunderstanding. Quite on the contrary. The English edition from 1795 has a long, meticulous preface, which wipes out all misunderstandings, but the American publisher uses an extract from this preface, which is so selective and careless, that the reader gets the impression that Holbein's dance of death and Basel's dance of death are one and the same.
Another part of the preface from Bewick's book originally sounded like this: »[…] the Cuts in the present Edition, […] are engraven, and the Verses under them translated from the Latin Edition of 1547; and that the additional Cuts, which appeared in the French Edition of 1562, […] are here also inserted, […]«. That is: Bewick has copied a Latin edition from 1547 and a French edition from 1562. These years are not random, since 1547 was the year that the publisher added soldier, waggoner, gambler, robber, blind man, beggar, drunkard, fool and four boys, while 1562 was the year the young woman, the young man and three additional boys were added.
In the "extract" of the American 1846-edition, this becomes: »The cuts are engraven, and the verses under them translated, from the Latin edition of 1662«. Bewick's 2 books from 1547 and 1562 have suddenly become a single Latin book from 1662!
The publisher also argues in the preface, that »the work will be found uncommonly interesting. It shows the precise costume of the people four centuries since, from the monarch on his throne, to the beggar in his rags«. Maybe it would have been smarter then to re-print Holbein's original woodcuts from 1538, instead of publishing Anderson's copies of Bewick's copies. The publisher is also wrong in asserting that there are four centuries between 1846 and 1538 (not to mention 1662). Evidently he's once again confusing Holbein's dance of death with Basel's dance of death.
It's also stated in the preface that in the 1846-edition »three of the cuts, representing Adam and Eve in various situations, it was thought advisable to omit«. Apparently the naked Adam and Eve didn't live up to the publisher's goal of »showing the precise costume of the people four centuries since«.
The book starts with Anderson's copy of Bewick's picture of Death leading the whole society into the grave (picture to the right). Anderson has carved his cutter's mark, AA, inside the grave. Then follows 46 woodcuts with the Creation, Fall, Life after the Fall, Death's escutcheon and the waggoner missing.
The verses from Bewick's book accompany each picture. The spelling is modernized, but the language remains just as stilted. The publisher has added some explanatory text to each picture.
Apparently there was published in
New Haven, Conn., in 1810, an
edition of woodcuts, copies from John
Bewick's 1789 edition, by Dr. Alexander
Anderson, the noted American
wood-engraver of his day. The author
has been unable to obtain a copy of
this edition, and has never seen one.
It is not in the British Museum.
(The Physician of the Dance of Death, Aldred Warthin, 1931, page 84)