Rudolf and Conrad Meyer (1650)

Rudolf Meÿers S: Todten-dantz ergäntzet und herausgegeben durch Conrad Meÿern Maalern in Zürich im Jahr 1650.
Meyer, Sterbensspiegel
Title page from 1650:
Sterbensspiegel, das ist sonnenklare Vorstellung menschlicher Nichtigkeit durch alle Ständ und Geschlechter:
vermitlest 60. dienstlicher Kupferblätteren, lehrreicher Uberschrifften und beweglicher zu vier Stimmen aussgesetzter Todtengesängen
Meyer, 1650

R udolf and Conrad Meyer were sons of Dietrich Meyer in Zürich. The father had for four years (1609-1613) had Matthäus Merian as an apprentice, and later on both Rudolf and Conrad in turn became pupils of Merian. This interaction between Merian and the family Meyer explains why the cupper plates for Sterbensspiegel are reminiscent of Merian's cupper plates for the dance of death in Basel.

Rudolf (1605-1638) was a painter. In 1629 he travelled to Merian in Frankfurt am Main and worked as an apprentice for a few years. In the years 1632-1633 he was in Nuremberg, where he experienced the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) firsthand, while the city was under siege by the Swedish king Gustav Adolf. Later on Rudolf produced many drawings showing the cruelties of war.

Back in Zürich he started among other things to work on his dance of death, and one can see how his recollections of the war has influenced motives as knight, captain, ensign, soldier, robber and the certainty of Death.

His younger brother Conrad (1618-1689) explains in the preface of the 1650-edition, how Rudolf had drawn about half the scenes and had paid Conrad to engrave them. In some of the editions some of the plates bear the date 1637, e.g.: »R Meyer in C M Fecit, 1637« (i.e.: designed by Rudolf Meyer, executed by Conrad Meyer, 1637).

When Rudolf died at the age of thirty-three, it was up to Conrad to produce the rest of the scenes and to complete the series. This is reflected in the title page: »vor disem angefangen durch Ruodolffen Meyern S. von Zürich etc. jetz aber […] zu End gebracht und verlegt durch Conrad Meyern«

Description of Sterbensspiegel

Death snatches (among others) the brothers Meyer and their father.
Meyer, Painters
Conrad Meyer, self portrait
Meyer, Conrad Meyer

T he 1650-edition contains 60 scenes: »vermitlest 60. dienstlicher Kupferblätteren«, which number apparently doesn't include the frontispiece. The plates start with 5 images in the same order as Holbein with The Fall of Man and the Triumph of Death. The resten of the scenes fall in three sections or "crowds", that each are introduced by an un-numbered image: the clergy, rulers and citizens. At the end are a few religious scenes, including Judgment Day.

It is in this structure that one still can see the legacy of Holbein's dance of death from 1538. There are also a great deal of motives pointing back to Holbein: The pope, who lets an emperor kiss his feet, the bishop standing in the meadow among his sheep, the abbess, the priest, the preacher, the empress, the merchant and the hawker.

Both the gambler and the boozer throw up on the floor, just like in Holbein's picture of the boozer. The tasteful detail of letting a dog eat the vomit, however, has been taken from Birckmann's version of the same scene. Meyer's picture of the usurer shows Death fighting for the dying with a devil, while a third person clears the money of the table. The same motive is seen in Holbein's gambler. Meyer's hermit is reminiscent of the hermit in Holbein's W.

As mentioned, the two brothers Meyer knew Merian well, and some of their plates seem to be inspired by the dance of death in Basel: The blind man is clearly a copy of the blind man in Basel and the Jew is a copy of the Jew in Basel. In one of the images of the cook Death looks like the corresponding figure from the nobleman in Basel, while Death in the other picture of the cook carries the skewer over his shoulder like in Basel's cook and Holbein's abbot. The idea of having Death fetch the artists behind the dance of death (picture to the left) has also been taken from Basel.

Under each plate has been added a verse of 4 lines. Conrad writes in the preface that Rudolf had found them in an old printed book and improved them.(1) The text of these four lines have great similarities to the dance of death in the Spreuer-bridge in Lucerne. The Spreuer bridge was painted by Kaspar Meglinger 1626 - 35 and is thus older than Sterbensspiegel, so perhaps it's the same book that has inspired both dances of death.

To the left of each plate is a dialogue between Death and the dying. This text was authored by the parish priest Johann Georg Müller (1610 - 1672), who also wrote a short treatise on The Letter to the Hebrews 9:27. at the beginning of the book. The book ends with sheet music and text for 8 songs of death, "Todtengesängen", arranged for four voices.

Hebrews 9:27: And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

Different Editions

Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel, 1704
Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel, Sterb-Spiegel

T here were problems with the publication, since the city-state of Zürich was under censorship and from 30/3 till 11/4 1650 a battle was raging in the censorship board. One reason was that the text at places was too Catholic for the Protestant burghers of Zürich, another was that even 119 years after The Reformation with its ensuing iconoclasm it was still not thought Kosher to combine edifying texts with pictures — nor to combine the 8 Todtengesänge with music. On the other hand Conrad Meyer wasn't interested in offending potential buyers by making his work too anti-Catholic, and while the dispute went on, he had a few extra copies printed in Strasbourg.

It's a bit hard to figure out how many print runs the book went through in 1650, and where they were printed. According to the preface from the 1759-edition, there had also been a 1657-edition.

A hundred years later, in 1759, a new edition was produced with the original 60 cupper plates: »in LXI original-kupfern«. Müller's dialogue on the left-pages was replaced by new and more timely verses, but Müller's old text was instead printed at the back of the book. In this edition an ensign had been added. This image is of the same high quality as the rest of the plates, and is signed »RM in: CoM F«, so it's hard to see why it hadn't been included back in 1650.

Sterbensspiegel was republished in 1919, and as late as 1978 the original plates were used for a reprint of 100 copies.

In between these prints, Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel was created in 1704. This book contained laterally inversed copies of lower quality (picture to the left).

Head of orphanage.
Meyer, Orphanage
Head of orphanage. Foot juts out.
Meyer, Orphanage

There are two version of the cook. Both were evidently created by Conrad Meyer for one of the images of the cook is marked, »C.M.f«. while the other picture of the cook is marked, »C M in et f:«. In some editions it even bears the improbable mark: »C M in et f: 1637«), which if true would mean that Conrad Meyer had designed it while only 19 years old, and while his brother was still alive.

A more subtle variation is in the scene with the head of orphanage. On some of the versions, the foot of the widow protrudes from the frame of the picture.

External links

Meyer 1650: Sterbensspiegel
Meyer 1650: 1650
Meyer 1650: 1759
Meyer 1650: Creation
The Fall
Meyer 1650: The Fall
Meyer 1650: Expulsion
After the Fall
Meyer 1650: After the Fall
Meyer 1650: Ossuary
Meyer 1650: Clergy
Meyer 1650: Pope
Meyer 1650: Cardinal
Meyer 1650: Biskop
Meyer 1650: Abbot
Meyer 1650: Abbess
Meyer 1650: Priest
Meyer 1650: Monk
Meyer 1650: Hermit
Meyer 1650: Preacher
Meyer 1650: Rulers
Meyer 1650: Emperor
Meyer 1650: Empress
Meyer 1650: King
Meyer 1650: Queen
Meyer 1650: Prince
Meyer 1650: Count
Meyer 1650: Knight
Meyer 1650: Nobleman
Meyer 1650: Judge
Meyer 1650: Orphanage
Meyer 1650: Captain
Meyer 1650: Ensign
Lower Classes
Meyer 1650: Lower Classes
Meyer 1650: Physician
Meyer 1650: Astrologer
Meyer 1650: Merchant
Meyer 1650: Painters
Meyer 1650: Craftsman
Meyer 1650: Architect
Meyer 1650: Innkeeper
Meyer 1650: Cook
Meyer 1650: Cook
Meyer 1650: Peasant
Servant and maid
Meyer 1650: Servant and maid
Old man
Meyer 1650: Old man
Old woman
Meyer 1650: Old woman
Meyer 1650: Lovers
Meyer 1605: Child
Meyer 1650: Soldier
Meyer 1650: Peddler
Meyer 1650: Highwayman
Meyer 1650: Quack
Meyer 1650: Blind
Meyer 1650: Beggar
Meyer 1650: Jew
Meyer 1650: Usurer
Meyer 1650: Gamester
Meyer 1650: Boozer
Meyer 1650: Gluttons
Meyer 1650: Fool
Meyer 1650: Certainty
Meyer 1650: Uncertainty
Meyer 1650: Judgment
Meyer 1650: Victory
Meyer 1650: Salvation
Meyer 1650: Religion
Conrad Meyer
Meyer : Conrad Meyer

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 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)

Many of the scenes, e.g. the Jew, were copied from Basel's dance of death.
Merian, Jew
In 1704 Sterbensspiegel was copied as Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel.
Erbaulicher Sterb-Spiegel, Sterb-Spiegel
Many of the scenes from Sterbensspiegel have inspired the Danish Døde-Dands from 1762.
Døde=Dands, Innkeeper

Footnotes: (1)

From the foreword: »Die Vierverse auf den Kupferblätteren hat er grössern theils, auss einem in Truk aussgangenem bogen […] entlehnet, und unterschidlicher orten verbessert«