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«
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. Hebrews 9:27: And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: at the beginning of the book. The book ends with sheet music and text for 8 songs of death, "Todtengesängen", arranged for four voices.
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). According to Douce, the pope and the other religious figures were omitted, and the costumes have sometimes been modernized.(2)
There are two version of the cook. Both were evidently created by Conrad Meyer for the one is marked, »C.M.f«. while the other 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 the 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.
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)
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)
Salomon van Rusting (1707)
T. Nieuhoff Piccard (1720)
Christian de Mechel (1780)
David Deuchar (1788)
John Bewick (1789)
Alexander Anderson (1810)
Wenceslaus Hollar (1816)
Ludwig Bechstein (1831)
Joseph Schlotthauer (1832)
Francis Douce (1833)
Carl Helmuth (1836)
Francis Douce (1858, 2. edition)
Henri Léon Curmer (1858)
Tindall Wildridge (1887)
Footnotes: (1) (2)
(The dance of death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood, page 151).