Hans Holbein's Great Dance of Death

Holbein 1538: Creation
The Creation of Eve

T 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.

I 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.

Social Criticism

Holbein's Imagines Mortis: Pope
The pope performing an unchristian act while being surrounded by corpses and devils with letters of indulgence.

T 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.

Holbein's Imagines Mortis: Judge
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 his sword. 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.

Different Editions

The text on the letter of indulgence.
On Vogtherr's woodcut the text is legible.

I 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) In 1547,(3) the beggar became a part of the dance of death, and the series was expanded by soldier, waggoner, gambler, robber, blind man, drunkard, fool and four pictures of children. After several editions, the series was expanded in 1562 with young woman, young man and more boys. 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 1555: Soldat
Birckmann's copies have inspired Valvasor, Hollar and Deuchar.

Holbein 1538: Creation
Creation
Holbein 1538: The Fall
The Fall
Holbein 1538: Expulsion
Expulsion
Holbein 1538: After the Fall
After the Fall
Holbein 1538: Bones of All Men
Bones of All Men
Holbein 1538: The Pope
The Pope
Holbein 1538: Emperor
Emperor
Holbein 1538: King
King
Holbein 1538: Cardinal
Cardinal
Holbein 1538: Empress
Empress
Holbein 1538: Queen
Queen
Holbein 1538: Bishop
Bishop
Holbein 1538: Duke
Duke
Holbein 1538: Abbot
Abbot
Holbein 1538: Abbess
Abbess
Holbein 1538: Nobleman
Nobleman
Holbein 1538: Canon
Canon
Holbein 1538: Judge
Judge
Holbein 1538: Lawyer
Lawyer
Holbein 1538: Senator
Senator
Holbein 1538: Preacher
Preacher
Holbein 1538: Priest
Priest
Holbein 1538: Monk
Monk
Holbein 1538: Nun
Nun
Holbein 1538: Old woman
Old woman
Holbein 1538: Physician
Physician
Holbein 1538: Astrologer
Astrologer
Holbein 1538: Rich man
Rich man
Holbein 1538: Merchant
Merchant
Holbein 1538: Sailor
Sailor
Holbein 1538: Knight
Knight
Holbein 1538: Count
Count
Holbein 1538: Old man
Old man
Holbein 1538: Countess
Countess
Holbein 1538: Noblewoman
Noblewoman
Holbein 1538: Duchess
Duchess
Holbein 1538: Peddler
Peddler
Holbein 1538: Peasant
Peasant
Holbein 1538: Child
Child
Holbein 1538: Judgement Day
Judgement Day
Holbein 1538: The escutcheon
The escutcheon
Holbein 1538: Soldier
Soldier
Holbein 1538: Waggoner
Waggoner
Holbein 1538: Gambler
Gambler
Holbein 1538: Robber
Robber
Holbein 1538: Blind man
Blind man
Holbein 1538: Beggar
Beggar
Holbein 1538: Drunkard
Drunkard
Holbein 1538: Fool
Fool
Holbein 1562: Young woman
Young woman
Holbein 1562: Young man
Young man
Holbein : Scabbard
Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Scabbard
Holbein 1547: Child
Child
Holbein 1547: Children
Children
Holbein 1547: Children
Children
Holbein 1547: Children
Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Children

External Links

Further Information

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

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. (German Engravings, 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.

Up to Holbein's Dances of Death