olbein's first attempt with dances of death was a pen and wash drawing of a dagger sheath. The sheath itself was engraved by Urs Graf and is marked with the year 1521.(1)
A purist might say that the dagger is Holbein's only dance of death, since his dance of death alphabet and great dance of death really belong to the genre of emblem books.
The drawing resides in Berliner Bauakademie. To the right is one of the three mirrored copies in Basler Kunstsammlung. The exemplar to the right was formerly also believed to be drawn by Holbein.(2) Woltmann even argued, that since the exemplar in Basel is mirrored, the one might be a counter-proof of the other.
he drawing in Berliner Bauakademie used to be owned by Christian von Mechel, who engraved a copy in copper along with his copies of Rubens' copies of Holbein (see pictures to the left and right).
Douce writes about this copy: »M. Mechel has added another print on this subject, viz, the sheath of a dagger, a design for a chaser. It is impossible to exceed the beauty and skill that are manifested in this fine piece of art«.
t the death of Christian von Mechel, the drawing was bought by Christian Peter Wilhelm Beuth of Berlin (1781-1853), and the drawing ended up in the Beuth-Schinkel Museum of Berlin.
Beuth published the two-volume work Vorbilder für Fabrikanten und Handwerker in 1836, and the drawing was reproduced for this purpose This took three men: Johann Samuel Otto, Gustav Lüderitz and Friedrich Wilhelm Schwechten,
Woltmann describes the process: »in Punktirmanier von Otto begonnen, in Aquatinta von Lüderitz und Schwechten vollendet«. That is, the shadows were rendered with small points using a pointed hammer or drypoint, instead of with lines and hatching. After that, aquatint was used, i.e. a special etching technique that gives varying shades of gray to the different areas.
The result is a much closer copy of the original washed pen drawing. We have just quoted Douce for saying, three years earlier in 1833, that it was »impossible to exceed the beauty and skill« of Mechel's engraving, but Goette prefers Beuth's copy and calls it "a later and better Berliner engraving".(3)
The engraving to the right is a copy of another one of the three copies in the Basler Kunstmuseum made by Édouard Lièvre for a book by Paul Mantz in 1879.
he dagger sheath was copied by David Deuchar (to the left), although you'd have to know it was a dagger sheath to recognize it.
The woodcut to the right is from Francis Douce's book The dance of death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood. It appears to be a woodcut based on Mechel's copperplates.
The Dutch Golden Age painter Gesina ter Borch (1633–1690) has copied Holbein's drawing. First as a close copy in ink and then as a more free copy in colour.
Holbein has himself used his dagger sheath as inspiration for his later works, the dance of death alphabet (see initials C, D, I, K and O) and Holbein's great dance of death (see monk and soldier).
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)
Woltmann belives both to be geuine, while Alexander Goette in "Holbein's Totentanz und seine Vorbilder" by , 1897, spends 3 pages arguing why one drawing is inferior to the other.
Goette describes the drawing the von Mechel once owned:
»ES sind davon zwei Exemplare bekannt : i ) eine getuschte Handzeichnung in der Berliner Bauakademie, früher in Mechels Besitz in Basel
und dort von ihm gestochen im Oeuvre de Jean Holbein (No. 52);
ein späterer und besserer Berliner Stich befindet sich im Prachtwerk "Vorbilder für Architekten [sic] und Handwerker"«.
(Alexander Goette, Holbeins Totentanz und seine Vorbilder, 1897, page 174)