Holbein's Sources and Inspiration

In Lübeck, Death and the citizens are gathered to perform a chain dance.
Carl Julius Milde, Milde #7
Holbein lets Death attack his victims everywhere
Holbein Proofs, Sailor

H ans Holbein's Dance of Death became incredibly popular and practically came to define the genre. After Holbein, it was the end of the previous monumental dances of death — such as those in Lübeck, Berlin, Tallinn, Basel, Paris and London.

Admittedly, Holbein follows the model of the old dances of death, but on the other hand, "something new has been added". E.g. the dance is no longer a chain dance out in the field (pictured left): Holbein instead lets Death confront his victims in castles, in the cellar, on the country road, in the forest, in the bedroom, at sea, etc. (pictured right).

The new elements turn out to originate from France, namely:

Holbein may not have read these very books, but then he may have been inspired through the margins in French books of hours:

The Original Sin

Holbein starts with the original sin
Holbein Proofs, Paradise
Mors de la Pomme: Death appears at the moment Adam and Eve break God's commandments
Mors de la Pomme, Pomme

The old dances of death begin and end with an authority or preacher, whose purpose is to explain the moral of the play. This applies both to the monumental dances that we know from Lübeck, Tallinn, Paris, Basel, London and Berlin, and to the books: CPG 314, Heidelberg's block book and Des dodes dantz.

Holbein does not have such preachers, instead he wraps the dance into a Christian (Protestant) context, starting with the Original Sin. But Holbein was not the first to do so; in fact this was the main theme in Mors de la Pomme from 1468. The picture on the right shows how Death appears at the same second Adam and Eve are eating of the apple.

In fairness, it must be said that one of the oldest monumental dances of death, La Chaise Dieu, also starts with Adam and Eve, who come just before the preacher.

Many dances of death are also painted close to Adam and Eve: In the chapel in Beram there is a picture of Adam and Eve on the west wall. The dance in Nørre Alslev is placed together with the creation, the Fall and Judgment Day. Under the dance in Dresden was a relief with Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge (this dance is from 1534-1537, so the artist had not read any books with Holbein's dance of death).

Les loups rauissans
Vie de l'Homme
Hardouyn, Adam & Eve

But already in 1465, approx. 60 years before Holbein, La Danse aux Aveugles was written. This very popular work begins with Death telling, how she ("la morte" is feminine in French) has had power over man ever since Adam and Eve's transgression.

The same applies to Les loups rauissans (left), Vie de l'Homme (right) and Accidens de l'Homme (strictly speaking, it is probably Accident, and not Death, who appears in the picture on the left, but only their mothers would be able to tell them apart).

Holbein: Expulsion
Holbein Proofs, Expulsion
Mors: Expulsion
Mors de la Pomme, Expulsion

The transgression results in the expulsion from Paradise, as shown by Holbein on the left.

Mors shows how Death is handed her divine authorization and three darts by an angel, while another angel stands guard with a flaming sword.

Holbein: After the Fall
Holbein Proofs, After the Fall
Holbein: After the Fall
Mors de la Pomme, After the Fall

After the expulsion, Death has become man's constant companion, as Holbein shows on the left.

Mors shows how Death literally breathes down their necks with her divine mandate in hand.

All these works also show the world's first case of death when Cain kills Abel. Or as the otherwise bone-dry text in Loups Ravissans phrases it: »Comment par cayn lenuieux / Le quart du monde fut martir« ("How a quarter of the world's population was killed by the envious Cain").

This evidently did not interest Holbein, nor did he follow Mors in the description of Noah's ark and the giant.

It should be added that in Basel, in Holbein's own hometown, there was a scene with Adam and Eve, but this scene came at the end of the dance and probably wasn't added before a renovation in 1616.

The ossuary / Risen bones

Holbein: bones of all men
Holbein Proofs, Ossuary
Marcus Reinhart starts with the original sin, dead men's music and ossuary.
Markus Reinhart 00

Holbein lets his dance of death (and Holbein's Alphabet) start with musical Deaths in an ossuary.

Again, this is not something that Holbein has invented, because as you can see on the right, Marcus Reinhart's book of hours from 1490 also starts with two musical corpses and an ossuary. Reinhart also started the dance with the Fall of Man, where Eve stands with Death in front of the Tree of Knowledge (there was no room for Adam).

But Holbein and Reinhart were far from the first, for the dance of death in Basel, which is from approx. 1440, also started with an ossuary, and the same applies to Kleinbasel,

However, there is the small problem that we don't really know the sequence of Holbein's woodcuts. When they were released as emblem books in 1538, the ossuary was placed at the start of the dance, and this order is followed by all copyists (see a partial list at the bottom of this page) except one. With this order, one must understand that the Deaths — for one reason reason or another — arise from the ossuary to summon the whole society to the grave.

This is not an improbable interpretation. The ossuary undeniably comes first in Holbein's Alphabet, in Reinhart's marginal and in Basel's two dances of death. And the reason for the many cases of death could be The Black Death.

But Holbein's woodcuts were initially published separately as so-called proofs. These were published in a different order, which is also followed by Jobst Denecker / Heinrich Vogtherr who generally follow the proofs closely. In this order, the ossuary comes towards the end, immediately before the resurrection and Judgment Day.

With this sequence, the rising bones at the ossuary becomes part of the resurrection before the Day of Judgment. Those who died in the dance are now awakening. As Paul writes: »we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep« (1 Thess. 4:15).

Simon Vostre: The 11. day
The 11. sign

Another source is "The 15 Signs before Doomsday". This text from late antiquity was very popular and widely circulated. It probably goes all the way back to the Revelation of St. Thomas and 2nd (= 4th) Esdras ch. 5-6, and via an Irish text it has spread to the rest of Europe.

In the book of hours on the left, the 11th sign is that the bones of the dead will stand up on "the monuments" (i.e. their graves).

Lonziesme iour les os des gens
Qui du siecle sont trepassez
Seront tous sur les monuments
Qui seront ouuers & cassez

On the eleventh day the bones of men,
who have passed away from this world,
will all be upon the monuments,
which will be opened and broken.

The individual manuscripts naturally differ from each other, i.g. as to whether the resurrection counts as one of the 15 signs, or is a part of Doomsday. In England, "The 15 Signs" is part of the book "The Pricke of Conscience", which survives in 130 manuscripts, making it the most popular manuscript of all time. In this book, the bones rise on the 13th day:

Þe thredend day sal dede men banes
Be sett to-gyder, and ryse al attanes,
And aboven on þair graves stand;
Þis sal byfalle in ilka land.
(linje 4804-4807)

On the thirteenth day, shall the bones of dead men
be put together and rise up all together,
and stand upon their graves,
This shall happen in every country.

The author emphasizes that »This shall happen in every country«. The day of Judgment applies to the whole world, and Holbein's picture has the heading: »Gebeyn alle menschen«, the bones of all men, to show that this is not a single cemetery or the victims of a single epidemic, but that all the dead rise now.

The German poem »von den Funffzehen Tagen« from 1620 also places the resurrected bones at the thirteenth day.

Stained glass window: The 14. day Death will come to all people
The 14. sign

Den Dreyzehenden all Todten bein
zu samen sich versamlen fein,
vnd alle Gräber offen stehn,
darnach die Menschen herfür gehn

On the thirteenth [day] the bones of all the dead
will gather together nicely,
and all graves will be open,
after which people will go forth.

The next day, after the dead have mounted their graves, all living people on earth are killed in order for them to be resurrected (image on the right). Here is "Pricke" again:

Þe fourtend day, al þat lyves þan
Sal dighe, childe, man and woman
For þai shalle with þam rys ogayn
Þat byfor war dede, outher til ioy or payn.
(linje 4808-4811):

On the fourteenth day all who live then,
shall die — child, man and woman,
for they shall rise again with those,
who already were dead, either to joy or pain.

Schedel's world chronicle, 1493
The world's seventh age
Schedel's world chronicle
THe world's final age

The fifteenth and final sign is that the earth will burn up. One may wonder how this can be "a sign" when everybody died on the fourteenth day, and nobody is left to contemplate this "sign."

The text in The 15 Signs only says that the dead will stand on their graves, but not that they will dance. There is, however, another source that does so.

The very popular image on the left shows the seventh age of the world ("Septima etas mundi"), which is on the subject of Death. The title of the image is "Imago Mortis", i.e. Image of Death — like the title later used for Holbein's books: Imagines Mortis.

After the seventh age comes the final age of the world ("Ultima etas mundi"). This section consists of only one and a half pages of tightly packed text, which includes "The 15 signs" in very short form. After this, the image on the right appears.

In this very popular book, only two pages separate the dancing bones and Judgment Day

Death in everyday life

Holbein: Death comes to the Pope's court
Holbein Proofs, Pope
Mors: Death comes to the Pope's court
Mors de la Pomme, Pope

What particularly distinguishes Holbein's dance from the old monumental dances is that Death fetches people from different places in their everyday lives. In the old dances, all people had given up their daily duties to participate in the big joint dance out on a meadow.(1)

In those days, pope and emperor danced with fool and peasant in the common dance, but Holbein instead makes Death seek out the Pope while he is surrounded by cardinals and bishops (pictured left), just as it happens in Mors (right).

Loups: People are dying of famine
Vie: People die from falls and drowning
Hardouyn, Tower

Here again we can point to the aforementioned French books where people meet Death in the nursery and in the field, by hanging, by falling and drowning, by war and hunger.

Holbein, then, did not invent this new sub-genre, but his skill and popularity made this change from the old dances of death catch on because of him and his many imitators (see bottom of this page for a partial list).

Judgment Day

Holbein ends with Judgment Day at the end pf the world
Holbein Proofs, Judgment Day
Mors: Judgment over one recently departed
Mors de la Pomme, Judgment

Holbein ends the dance with Judgment Day, and so does all the sources we've looked at here: Mors (right), Reinhart, Accidens de l'Homme, Les loups rauissans, La Vie de l'Homme, La Danse aux Aveugles and The 15 Signs.

As a good Protestant, Holbein introduced some theological changes. The text in Mors warns us several times against "Le jugement particulier", and the picture also shows how the individual soul comes before the Judge right after death, where a devil and an angel must debate the fate of this particular soul.

Holbein's woodcut, on the other hand, has the heading: »Dass Jüngst gericht«. The word is in the singular, because there will be only one judgment for the whole world.

Les loups rauissans
Loups, Judgment Day
La Vie de l'Homme
Hardouyn, Judgment Day

Holbein has also changed the scene compared to Loups (left), Vie (right) and Schedel's world chronicle (above). As a good Protestant, he didn't need saints to intercede, and therefore he has removed John and Mary.

Marcus Reinhart ends with a picture of the sinners in Hell, and Mors has two chapters with Purgatory and Hell.

Holbein's picture is more positive: He shows only the saved people. For him, Judgment Day is the happy end of the dance of death.

Further information

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 so-called "proofs".
Holbein Proofs, Ossuary
Denecker/Vogther follow the same sequence as the "proofs".
Vogtherr, Bones of All Men

Footnotes: (1)

Groß-Basel, the usurer in the field.
Groß-Basel, The usurer
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).
Holbein's dance of death, the miser in the cellar.
Holbein, The miser

However, 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.