Hans Holbein: Dance of Death and Emblems

H ans Holbein's so-called great dance of death became incredibly popular. The original woodcuts were reprinted for more than 100 years until they were worn away beyond repair. Countless artists made their own copies and interpretations through several centuries (see a partial list at the bottom of this page).

The strange part is that in the format Holbein's dance of death was published, it wasn't really a dance of death, but an emblem book, and (with the possible exception of Denecker/Vogtherr) this was the book that was copied by countless imitators. The result was that Holbein's skills and popularity resulted in the end of the "real" dances of death.


Is the cardinal in the proces of selling indulgences? Or has he just received his promotional papers?
Holbein, Cardinal

H olbein and Lützelburger produced the great dance of death between 1522 and 1526, but for several years the woodcuts were only published in the form of broadsheets (the so-called "printer's proofs"). Most of these issues only consisted of 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.(1) Above the woodcuts were German titles like Vßtribung Ade Eue and Der Rych man.

In 1538 the woodcuts were finally published in the form of a book. Now each picture was furnished with one or two Bible quotes at the top and a four-lined poem by Gilles Corrozet(2) below.

In that way the pictures became a part of an emblem book — a fact that is reflected in the title of John Bewick's and Alexander Anderson's copies: »Emblems of mortality«.

An emblem
Holbein, emblem

An emblem was a popular art form, consisting of 3 elements (see picture to the left):

1) A motto (in this case one or two Bible quotes).

2) An allegorical picture.

3) A moralizing poem.

Thus the pictures and the text don't form a unit, since the text had been added at a later time, when Lützelburger had been dead for 12 years and Holbein was living in London. If Holbein ever had a text in his mind to accompany his woodcuts, it has disappeared for ever.

In contrast to the earlier monumental dances of death — like those in Lübeck, Berlin, Tallinn, Basel, Paris and London — there's is no preacher with introducing and concluding sermons. The preacher is just another member in the series.

Is the bishop a bad shepherd? Or is the flock only scattered because Death takes him away?
Holbein, Bishop

The German titles are gone, and the quatrains are just a general moral that doesn't have much bearing on the picture. Therefore it's often hard to guess, what goes on in the pictures. Is it a rich man, a usurer or a miser? Is it a noblewoman or a newly married couple? Is it a countess or a bride?

Worst of all, there's no dialogue between Death and the dying. One has to make up ones own story. Is the cardinal selling indulgences? Or has he just received his promotion? Is the bishop a bad shepherd? Or does the sheep and the congregation start running astray because Death takes the "shepherd" away? What is it Death has in his hand behind the preacher? Is Death helping the peasant plowing the field? Or is he about to run the horses (and the peasant) to death? What's the story behind the young man?

We don't even know where in the dance the Bones of all men belongs. Are the cadavers leading the dance like they do in Holbein's alfabet, Basel and Kleinbasel? Or are the resurrected dead in fact heralding Judgment Day, as they do in the so-called proofs(3) and in the series that was published by Jobst Denecker and Heinrich Vogtherr?

The popularity of Holbein's dance of death meant that he de facto redefined the genre — and that the old monumental dances of death in Lübeck, Tallinn, Basel, Paris, London and Berlin went out of fashion. Let's therefore examine the difference between these "old dances of death" and Holbein's emblems:

Before Holbein (monumental dances)After Holbein
All participants are shown in one great dance(4) — often a chain dance. Independent scenes. Death threatens constantly and everywhere - in the cabin, in the cellar, in the castle, in the forest, in the plough-field, on the highway and at sea.
The victims have apparently died simultaneously - probably from the Black Death. People die at different times. Typical causes of death are war and accidents.
Death skips around to each dancer. The text makes it clear that the cadaver in the burial shroud is Death himself. There are often 2 Deaths for each human, and they can be male and female.
Death is a messenger - announcing to the dead that the time is up. Death causes destruction - drags people away, trips the senator up and fights the count.
Death is equipped with a scythe in order to reap the "ripe harvest". Revelation 14:15: »[…] Thrust in thy sickle, and reap: for the time is come for thee to reap; for the harvest of the earth is ripe«. Death doesn't wait for any "ripening", but runs a lance through the knight and breaks the mast of the ship.
Dialogue between Death and the dying that helps explaining the picture. Vaguely relevant bible quotes that were added more than 10 years after Holbein finished the pictures, and after Holbein had left the country.
Death supplies us with a moral of the story. The didactic (instructive) element is gone — all one sees is one or more Deaths attacking the living in gleeful destruction.

Interpretations of Holbein


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 Icíar (1555)
Valentin Wagner (1557)
Jiří 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 Léon Curmer (1858)
Tindall Wildridge (1887)
Thy Grief (2022)

The "printer's proofs" have only a short title.
Holbein Proofs, Pope
In 1538 Bible quotes and quatrains were added.
Holbein, The Pope
Chytraeus retains the emblem-format.
Chytraeus, The Pope
Holbein 1538: Creation
The Fall
Holbein 1538: The Fall
Holbein 1538: Expulsion
After the Fall
Holbein 1538: After the Fall
Bones of All Men
Holbein 1538: Bones of All Men
The Pope
Holbein 1538: The Pope
Holbein 1538: Emperor
Holbein 1538: King
Holbein 1538: Cardinal
Holbein 1538: Empress
Holbein 1538: Queen
Holbein 1538: Bishop
Holbein 1538: Duke
Holbein 1538: Abbot
Holbein 1538: Abbess
Holbein 1538: Nobleman
Holbein 1538: Canon
Holbein 1538: Judge
Holbein 1538: Lawyer
Holbein 1538: Senator
Holbein 1538: Preacher
Holbein 1538: Priest
Holbein 1538: Monk
Holbein 1538: Nun
Old woman
Holbein 1538: Old woman
Holbein 1538: Physician
Holbein 1538: Astrologer
Rich man
Holbein 1538: Rich man
Holbein 1538: Merchant
Holbein 1538: Sailor
Holbein 1538: Knight
Holbein 1538: Count
Old man
Holbein 1538: Old man
Holbein 1538: Countess
Holbein 1538: Noblewoman
Holbein 1538: Duchess
Holbein 1538: Peddler
Holbein 1538: Peasant
Holbein 1538: Child
Judgment Day
Holbein 1538: Judgment Day
The escutcheon
Holbein 1538: The escutcheon
Holbein 1547: Soldier
Holbein 1547: Waggoner
Holbein 1547: Gambler
Holbein 1547: Robber
Blind man
Holbein 1547: Blind man
Holbein 1547: Beggar
Holbein 1547: Drunkard
Holbein 1547: Fool
Young woman
Holbein 1562: Young woman
Young man
Holbein 1562: Young man
Holbein 1547: Child
Holbein 1547: Children
Holbein 1547: Children
Holbein 1547: Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Creation, 1547
Holbein 1547: Creation, 1547
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein 1545: Beggar

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

Or 8 woodcuts on 5 sheets, etc.

A later hand has added numbers to the so-called proofs in Berlin, but only on every other woodcut, indicating that maybe they were printed two by two.

Gilles Corrozet was author, bookseller and historian.

He was one of those historians, who visited St. Innocents' cemetery without mentioning the Danse Macabre. He was also the owner of the Manuscript Français 1186.

According to Maßmann, the "Bones of all men" scene was placed just before "Judgment Day" in the 40 proofs in Berlin's Kunst-Cabinete, while Woltmann says the same about the two series located in the imperial copperplate cabinet of Paris.

Woltmann adds that it is not possible to determine the original sequence for the series in Basel and British Museum of London: »bei diesen beiden ist die ursprüngliche Reihenfolge nicht festzustellen« (page 408).

One might add the observation that the title "bones of all men" shows that this is a not a few cadavers leading the dance, but in fact the great and final Day of Judgment.

Groß-Basel, the usurer in the field.
Groß-Basel, The usurer
Holbein's dance of death, the miser in the cellar.
Holbein, The miser
One great dance...: The only pre-Holbein exception that comes to my mind is the dance of death in Basel where the usurer is sitting behind a desk (picture to the left). The straws and tufts show plainly that he is sitting out of doors - together with the other dancers. The desk is the miser's attribute, not location.

Contrast with Holbein's version (to the right), which clearly takes place indoors.