he woodcuts must have been produced in Basel between 1522 (when Lützelburger came to Basel)
and before 1526 - the year Lützelburger died.
The dance of death alphabet was used in books as early as August 1524,
but for unknown reasons — presumably because of the religious and social criticism — twelve years
passed before Holbein's great dance of death was published in book form.
There still exists a number of printed sheets (misleadingly referred to as "printer's proofs") with German titles
such as Vsstribung Ade Eue and
Der Rych man.
Most of these prints only include 40 woodcuts with
the astrologer missing.
The reason is probably the simple fact that
40 is a nice round number, which is easy to distribute on 4 printed pages.
t wasn't before 1538 that the 41 woodcuts (including the astrologer) were published by Melchior Trechsel in Lyon
under the title »Les Simulachres & Historiées Faces de la Mort avtant elegamtment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées«.
Gone were the German headlines —
instead each picture had been furnished with a Bible quote at the top and a 4-lined poem by Gilles Corozet below.
This means that Holbein's dance of death is not
a dance of death, but an emblem book.
The pope performing an unchristian act while being surrounded by corpses and devils with letters of indulgence.
he book was banned by the French general inquisitor Vidal de Bécanis,
and one understands why — considering the ecclesiastical and social criticism.
Those were uneasy times, with fights between Protestants and Catholics,
and people still remembered the peasants' rebellion of the 1520'ies.
The worst scene is probably the Pope,
who in a most unchristian way — lets the emperor kiss his feet,
surrounded by corpses and devils.
Admittedly the cardinal and bishop are also ambiguous, but they can be re-interpreted and explained away.
Furthermore a publisher could always defend himself by saying the pictures depicted a single corrupt cardinal
or a single incompetent bishop. But there's only one single infallible pope,
so in this case the address is distinct — and it's hard to explain away,
why the devils are flying and crawling at the Pope's court.
Most of the copyists (see the list below) has chosen to remove the devils from the pope —
if not at first, then in later editions.
The judge is being attacked by a corpse with an iron collar and chain —
presumably representing a former victim.
Among ecclesiasticals being ridiculed are
the cardinal, who's busy
selling indulgences, and the bishop,
who's an incompetent shepherd.
The well-nourished abbot
and the abbess have sworn to forsake the temptations of this world,
but are still protesting wildly
and fighting screamingly. Death does not come conveniently for them.
The monk clutches his charity box and its contents.
The canon is a fool, who only thinks of his hunting falcon and can't find his way into church.
The nun, who is married to Jesus, is enamoured by a young troubadour sitting in her bed.
The lay world isn't spared either.
The emperor is about to pass judgment on a poor man, when Death breaks
The judge ignoreres the poor man in favour of the rich man, who has his hands
in his money bag.
The lawyer receives cold cash on the street.
The senator ignores the poor man, while a devil uses a pair of bellows to blow evil into his ears.
The count prays for his life, while Death is dressed as a peasant —
a reminder of the peasants' rebellion.
The duke turns away from the poor in disgust, and fails to notice Death.
On Vogtherr's woodcut the text is legible.
n spite of the ban, the book was re-printed in many editions.
In the 1542-edition, Corozet's verses were translated from French to Latin
by Georg Aemilius.(1)
In 1545, the picture of a beggar was inserted in another section of the volume.(2)
the beggar became a part of the dance of death, and the series was expanded by
fool and four pictures of children.
After several editions, the series was expanded in 1562 with
young man and
At that time both Lützelburger
and Holbein were dead(4),
and the new woodcuts show it: In some of them, like
soldier and waggoner,
one can sense the hand of Lützelburger, but generally the quality is lower and varying.
Holbein's woodcuts have been incredibly popular even since — and have been re-interpreted and
copied by many artists.
Here are some of the editions:
Birckmann's copies have inspired Valvasor, Hollar and Deuchar.
Georg Aemilius . . .: 1517-1569, (also called Oemmel, Aemylius, Emilius, Öhmler and Oemler).
Several authors claim that Georg Aemilius was Martin Luther's brother-in-law,
but this is incorrect. It was Georgs father, Nicolas Oemeler,
whom Luther called his boyhood friend and brother-in-law — and brother-in-law should be understood in a very broad sense,
since Nicolas Oemeler and Luther's brother Jakob had married two sisters.
another section . . .: All the books mentioned are collections. Even when the art
of book printing was in its infancy, 41 pictures was too little to fill
an entire volume, and therefore Holbein's woodcuts were bundled with various didactic writings.
The mixture varied from edition to edition.
1547. . .: Many sources say 1545, but I stick with Hollstein,
who has been unable to trace such a 53-pictures book from 1545.
Etchings, Woodcuts 1400-1700 volume 14, page 203 bottom).
Holbein died in 1543, even though a lot of older books claim Holbein didn't die before 1554.