De doodt vermaskert

P ublished in Antwerp with text by Geeraerdt van Wolsschaten (1603 - 1660).

The two editions contain very different illustrations.

The 1654 Edition

1654-edition, frontispiece.
Doodt Vermaskert, Frontispiece
The physician. The bottom, left corner bears the mark "SA".
Doodt Vermaskert, Physician

T his book starts with a well executed fronticpiece (to the left). The book itself consists of 18 chapters, and the title promises that these 18 chapters are "adorned by the clever pictures by the famous painter Hans Holbein": verciert met de constighe Belden van den vermaerden Schilder Hans Holbeen.

Most of these 18 woodcuts are very cleverly and detailed executed and this has led many experts to believe that they were Holbein's original woodcuts.

Francis Douce divides them into 14 genuine Holbein-woodcuts and 4 other, child, pope, emperor and countess, which he calls copies, and very badly engraved.(1) It's hard to see why he considers child to be "very badly engraved".

The woodcuts can be divided in four groups:

The physician. Original block
Doodt Vermaskert, De Doodt vermaskert

As mentioned, six of the woodcuts have been marked with s.a. (see the physician to the right). This mark is a combined S and A, and it is very reminiscent of the mark s.a. on some of the copies of Holbein published by Birckmann's heirs.

When reading Douce one gets the impression that he thinks it was the same person, who first cut the woodcuts for Birckmann (that Douce loathed) in 1555, and who reappeared in 1654 to add his mark to the genuine Holbein-woodcuts. Douce first writes (page 109): XI. In 1654 a Dutch work appeared with the following title, "De Doodt vermaskert met swerelts ydelheyt afghedaen […] The blocks of the originals appear to have fallen into the hands of an artist, who probably resided at Antwerp, and several of them have his mark, s.a., concerning which more will be said under one of the ensuing articles.

And on page 113 he returns, as promised, to this artist when expounding on Birckmann: V. "Imagines Mortis, his accesserunt epigrammata Gallico idiomate Georgio mylio in Latinum translata, &c. Coloni apud hredes Arnoldi Birckmanni, anno 1555. […] The cuts are by the artist mentioned in No. IX. of those originals, whose mark is s.a. which is here found on five of them.

A close-up of the original woodblock.
Wolsschaten, De Doodt vermaskert

Warthin(2) seems to agree with Douce — both concerning the number of genuine woodcuts and the artist (page 71): In 1654 under the title "De Doodt vermaskert" […] This contained 18 woodcuts, 14 of which were the original blocks retouched, preserved for more than a century after their first use. The other 4 engravings were very poor copies. As 7 of these blocks had the monogram as (thought to be Ant. Sylvius), they probably were blocks used for the Birkmann edition of 1555.

In spite of this consensus among experts, it still sounds very unlikely that the man, who had created his own Holbein-copies in Cologne in 1555 should reappear in Antwerp a 100 years later in 1654 to add his mark on the genuine (so Douce thought) Holbein-cuts. And where does the knife enter into it?

Apart from the problem that the man would have been over 100 years old, adding details to a woodcut is a painstaking process. It's easy to add signatures to Hollar's copper plates, but a woodcutter cuts details away. If one wanted to add a printer's mark it would entail drilling a hole into the block, hammering a dowel into it, and then cutting a s.a. into the dowel.

Detail of the peddler.
The peddler

This hardly sounds credible, and we are in the fortunate situation that one of these blocks has survived, making it easier to evaluate the claim. The picture to the right shows how the "sa" is an integral part of the block.

The woodcuts have been copied very skillfully and detailed, and for this reason experts like Douce and Warthin have been mistaken. If one looks at the images one by one, in natural size, and crabbed print, one can easily confound them. If on the other hand the images are enlarged and switched back and forth, lots of little differences will appear.

On the image to the left the peddler is compared with Holbein's original. One can see how the musical instrument (a marine trumpet) changes angle and breadth, and how the number of lines in the hatching vary. It is revealing that there are more hatching-lines in the version from 1654, even though (as mentioned) it is very cumbersome to add details to a woodcut.

The 1698 Edition

Doodt Vermaskert, Peddler
Countess ("De Ionghe Vrijster")
Doodt Vermaskert, Countess

I n the 1698-edition all the woodcuts were gone: The Holben-copies and the frontispiece. Instead Geeraerdt van Wolsschaten's text was illustrated with new copperplates.

There's not much to say about the copper plates. They are quite bland, and one wonders what happened to the old woodcuts. The picture of the peddler (to the left) has been combined with the background from the soldier.

External Link

Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Frontispiece
The Pope
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: The Pope
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Emperor
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Duke
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Abbot
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Abbess
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Judge
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Priest
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Monk
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Physician
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Astrologer
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Sailor
Old man
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Old man
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Countess
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Noblewoman
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Peddler
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Child
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Beggar
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Children
De Doodt vermaskert
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: De Doodt vermaskert
De Doodt vermaskert
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: De Doodt vermaskert
De Doodt vermaskert
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: De Doodt vermaskert
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Pope
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Emperor
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Duke
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Abbot
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Abbess
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Judge
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Priest
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Monk
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Physician
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Astrologer
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Sailor
Old man
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Old man
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Countess
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Noblewoman
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Peddler
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Child
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Beggar
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Children

Other interpreters of Holbein's dance of death


Hans Holbein (1526) - so-called proofs
Hans Holbein (1538) - the originals
Heinrich Aldegrever (1541)
Heinrich Vogtherr (1544)
Vincenzo Valgrisi (1545)
Arnold Birckmann (1555)
Juan de Icar (1555)
Valentin Wagner (1557)
Jiř Melantrich (1563)
Georg Scharffenberg (1576)
Leonhart Straub (1581)
David Chytraeus (1590)
Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1590)
Fabio Glissenti (1596)
Eberhard Kieser (1617)
Rudolf and Conrad Meyer (1650)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1651)
→ De doodt vermaskert (1654) ←
Thomas Neale (1657)
Johann Weichard von Valvasor (1682)
Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel (1704)
Salomon van Rusting (1707)
T. Nieuhoff Piccard (1720)
Christian de Mechel (1780)
David Deuchar (1788)
John Bewick (1789)
Alexander Anderson (1810)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1816)
"Mr. Bewick" (1825)
Ludwig Bechstein (1831)
Joseph Schlotthauer (1832)
Francis Douce (1833)
Carl Helmuth (1836)
Francis Douce (1858, 2. edition)
Henri Lon Curmer (1858)
Tindall Wildridge (1887)

The woodcuts in De Doodt vermaskert look very much like genuine Holbein.
Holbein Proofs, Physician
Some of the woodcuts published by Birckmann's heirs are marked with "SA" (see bottom, right corner).
Birckmann, Abbess

Footnotes: (1) (2)

Francis Douce, The Dance of Death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood with a dissertation […], 1833, p. 109-110:

This edition contains eighteen cuts, among which the following subjects are from the original blocks. 1. Three boys. 2. The married couple. 3. The pedlar. 4. The shipwreck. 5. The beggar. 6. The corrupt judge. 7. The astrologer. 8. The old man. 9. The physician. 10. The priest with the eucharist. 11. The monk. 12. The abbess. 13. The abbot. 14. The duke. Four others, viz. the child, the emperor, the countess, and the pope, are copies, and very badly engraved.

Aldred Scott Warthin: The physician of the dance of death: a historical study of the evolution of the dance of death mythus in art, 1931.