Birckmann's Heirs

The fat hen (front page from the 1566 edition)
Arnold Birckmann
The fat hen
Birckmann, logo with fat hen

B irckmann's heirs published the woodcuts in 1555 (Arnold Birckmann had died in 1542). To the left is the front page from a later issue, which sports Birckmann's logo: a fat hen in front of a tree. The tree is a birch tree, of course, and the fat hen is an allusion to Birckmann's address in Cologne on a street called zo vetterhennen (since 1816 the name of the street has been Unter Fettenhennen).

The artist / woodcarver is unknown, but five of the woodcuts (abbess, canon, judge, old woman and blind man) bear a cutter's mark in the form of a capital, italic A or maybe it's conjoined S and A: s.a. Some think this mark belongs to Antonius Sylvius, while others point at Arnaud Nicolai.

The book was reprinted by Birckmann's heirs in 1555, 1556, 1557, 1558, 1560, 1566, 1567, 1572, 1573, 1574, 1655 and 1657. Maybe it's the great number of re-issues that has given the book so much influence. The later so popular artists, Kieser, Valvasor, Hollar and Deuchar have in very high degree copied Birckmann.

In the German editions from 1560 and 1573 the same woodcut was used for abbess and nun.
Arnold Birckmann, abbess / nun
In 1572 the nun had her old woodcut back.
Arnold Birckmann, abbedisse / nonne

Most of these editions were in Latin, but in 1557 came "Der Todtendantz, durch alle Stende" with German text by Caspar Scheit from Worms. Caspar Scheit had written the introduction and epilogue. For each woodcut he wrote a verse with 6 lines (the last two cuts got 8 lines each).

In 1558 the book was translated into Low German, "De Dodendantz dorch alle stende", and in 1560 "Der Todtendantz" was republished. Strangely, these three German editions do not indicate the name of the publisher, nor of the city — neither a birch tree nor a fat hen.

In these German books, the nobleman was called knight, and vice versa. In the Low German version (1558) the woodcut of the old man was used for illustrating the blind man, and vice versa. In the High German books (1560 and 1573) the woodcut of the abbess was also used for illustrating the nun (picture to the left and right) — while the duchess, noblewoman and countess were mixed up. The latter means that in the 1560-edition the countess is confusingly called »Die zwey liebhabenden« (the two lovers).

Birckmann and Kieser

E berhard Kieser has not copied Birckmann's woodcuts. His woodcuts are copies of Holbein's woodcuts, except for the 7 that are copies of Aldegrever.

The High German text by Caspar Scheit, however, is copied from Birckmann's books.

Birckmann, Valvasor, Hollar, Deuchar and Wildridge

Birckmann's woodcuts became very popular and were often copied. The print of the bishop is the one that clearest show who copied whom.

Holbein lets sun set over a hilltop. Birckmann lets — presumably — the sun set over a lake, but the mirror image is all wrong. Valvasor copies Birckmann with the bad mirror image. Hollar copies Birckmann but fixes the image so the mirror image is bigger and placed correctly. Deuchar copies Hollar with the correct mirror image. In 1816 the worn-down plates for Hollar's etchings are "freshened up", and faces are added to the suns. Wildridge copies the two suns with their faces, so it's no longer apparent that it's supposed to be a mirror image in a lake.

The confusion is total. Small wonder the congregation are running bewildered away.

Holbein (original): The sun over the hill
The bishop
Birckmann (shown reversed) adds a little sun in the lake
The bishop
Valvasor copies the little sun
The bishop
Hollar makes the sun look like a real mirror reflection
The bishop
Deuchar (shown reversed) copies Hollar
The bishop
Hollar 1816 is "improved", so the suns get faces
The bishop
Wildridge copies the "improved" etching with faces
The bishop

Birckmann and Hollar

Birckmann 1555: Fool
Birckmann 1555: Fool

B irckmann's pictures often deviate from Holbein's original woodcuts. He doesn't share Holbein's taste for heavy, dramatic clouds, but he's fond of adding buildings in the background, and he tries to include Death's hourglass in those scenes where Holbein has "forgotten" it. Curiously enough, he is often followed by Hollar.

In at least 20 out of Hollar's 30 plates, Hollar shows that he has studied Birckmann: The Expulsion from Paradise, Life After the Fall, the pope, the queen, the abbot, the abbess, the advocate, the preacher, the nun, the physician, the miser, the merchant, the count, the countess, the noblewoman, the peddler (lack of sword) the child, the escutcheon of Death, the soldier and the gambler.

Birckmann: Death attacks with an arrow instead of a bone.
Birckmann 1555: Soldier

One may wonder why Hollar copies Birckmann's copy instead of going directly to the source and use Holbein's originals. It has been suggested that maybe Hollar couldn't afford the genuine Holbein-prints and therefore had to make do with a copy of Birckmann's inferior prints. This explanation fails to account for why Hollar has in many other cases ignored Birckmann's changes and copied Holbein:

In these 9 plates, Hollar ignores Birckmann's changes: Temptation and Fall (Birckmann's copy is very different), the emperor (extra people and direction of the emperor's glance), the cardinal (espalier, disappearing money-box), the empress (tower in horizon), the duke (round tower with hourglass), the monk (Hollar keeps the pillar), the old woman (tree instead of stalks), the old man (hourglass and background) and the peddler (the dog's tail).

So Hollar was quite familiar with Holbein's originals and had access to them. A much more obvious explanation then — and one that will probably pain many art connoisseurs — is that Hollar in many cases has consciously preferred Birckmann's changes. This wouldn't be a unique case: Eberhard Kieser normally follows Holbein's originals very closely, but he has also had access to the 8 plates in Aldegrever's dance of death, and in 7 out of 8 times, he has preferred Aldegrever's copy to Holbein — just like Hollar in 20 out of 30 cases prefer Birckmann's copies to Holbein's originals.

Birckmann and Valvasor

Birckmann: Creation
Birckmann 1566: Creation
Valvasor: Creation
Theatrum mortis humanae tripartitum: Temptation and Fall

I anez Vajkard Valvasor published his copy of Holbein's dance of death in 1682.

Valvasor seems to be even fonder of Birckmann than Hollar was. Hollar had chosen to copy some of the pictures (e.g. The Creation) from Holbein, but even in these cases, Valvasor prefers Birckmann to Holbein.

Do we know if Valvasor has even looked at Holbein's original woodcuts? Well, Valvasor's picture of the Expulsion doesn't look like Birckmann, but then again it's not a close copy of Holbein either.

Birckmann and Deuchar

The fat hen
Birckmann, logo with fat hen

A ll of Hollar's 30 copperplates were copied by Deuchar. Deuchar follows Hollar's plates closely, except when he introduces some changes of his own invention — for instance in the preacher, where Deuchar follows neither Holbein nor Hollar, but instead gives Death a small bone in his hand. This makes Deuchar a Birckmann-copyist twice removed.

Hollar: Death behind the preacher has empty hands.
Hollar: Preacher

But the weird part is that Deuchar has 46 plates in his dance of death, i.e. 16 plates more than Hollar has. And when one looks at these extra plates (where Deuchar has not copied Hollar), then it looks as if Deuchar consequently has chosen to copy Birckmann instead of Holbein:

Deuchar copies Birckmann's woodcuts of king, duke, canon, judge, senator, priest, astronomer, sailors, knight, duchess, peasant, beggar, drunkard, fool and presumably also the blind man. The Creation is Deuchar's own design. The robber is the same with Holbein and Birckmann (so we can't tell who Deuchar has copied).

Not a single one of Deuchar's 16 additions indicate that he has ever looked at Holbein's original woodcuts, and this is deeply ironic, since Holbein is the only artist (except Deuchar himself, of course), who's credited anywhere in the book.

Birckmann and the unknown English artist

Later, an unknown English artist made at least 11 woodcuts in a dance of death series that was published by Tindall Wildridge. He has evidently copied the 1816-edition of Hollar (see the example with the bishop above). This means that he has followed the Birckmann-variations some 300 years after the first issue. This unknown artist, who has copied Birckmann twice or thrice removed, is a testament to the influence Birckmann's variations has had in Europa for many hundreds of years.


Birckmann 1555: Creation
The Fall
Birckmann 1555: The Fall
Birckmann 1555: Expulsion
After the Fall
Birckmann 1555: After the Fall
Bones of All Men
Birckmann 1555: Bones of All Men
The Pope
Birckmann 1555: The Pope
Birckmann 1555: Emperor
Birckmann 1555: King
Birckmann 1555: Cardinal
Birckmann 1555: Empress
Birckmann 1555: Queen
Birckmann 1555: Bishop
Birckmann 1555: Duke
Birckmann 1555: Abbot
Birckmann 1555: Abbess
Birckmann 1555: Nobleman
Birckmann 1555: Canon
Birckmann 1555: Judge
Birckmann 1555: Lawyer
Birckmann 1555: Senator
Birckmann 1555: Preacher
Birckmann 1555: Priest
Birckmann 1555: Monk
Birckmann 1555: Nun
Old woman
Birckmann 1555: Old woman
Birckmann 1555: Physician
Birckmann 1555: Astrologer
Rich man
Birckmann 1555: Rich man
Birckmann 1555: Merchant
Birckmann 1555: Sailor
Birckmann 1555: Knight
Birckmann 1555: Count
Old man
Birckmann 1555: Old man
Birckmann 1555: Countess
Birckmann 1555: Noblewoman
Birckmann 1555: Duchess
Birckmann 1555: Peddler
Birckmann 1555: Peasant
Birckmann 1555: Child
Judgement Day
Birckmann 1555: Judgement Day
The escutcheon
Birckmann 1555: The escutcheon
Birckmann 1555: Soldier
Birckmann 1555: Waggoner
Birckmann 1555: Gambler
Birckmann 1555: Robber
Blind man
Birckmann 1555: Blind man
Birckmann 1555: Beggar
Birckmann 1555: Drunkard
Birckmann 1555: Fool
Birckmann 1555: Child
Birckmann 1555: Children
Birckmann 1555: Children
Birckmann 1555: Children

Other interpreters of Holbein's dance of death

Up to Holbein's great dance of death