Holbein's "Proof Impressions"

H olbein's dance of death was published in several editions from 1538 and later. But the woodcuts are clearly older than this.

There are several arguments to support this:

HAnns Lützelburger / formschnider / genant Franck.
Hans Lutzelburger
The duchess' bedpost is marked "HL".
Holbein Proofs, Duchess

But the final proof that the woodcuts were finished before Holbein left the Continent, is found in Berlin's Kupferstichkabinett. In the Cabinet are 23 round ink drawings that are copies of the woodcuts and one of these, the emperor, carries the year 1527.(2)

One might argue that it could be the other way around — that maybe the woodcuts are copies of the drawings — but if this were the case they would have been laterally reversed. Furthermore the drawing of the duchess is marked by the letters "HL", which is thought to be the mark of the woodcutter (Hans Lützelburger). There wouldn't have been such a woodcutter's mark on the original drawing, which proves that the drawings are copies of the woodcuts.(3)

So the woodcuts had been finished a least 12 years, before the Trechsel brothers published them in 1538. We can only guess as to why it took them 12 years. Were they afraid of censorship? Or did they hope to find a woodcutter, who could execute those woodcuts (e.g. soldier and waggoner) that Hans Lützelburger had left unfinished?

At any rate there exist a number of publications, where the woodcuts have been published without any accompanying text, but simply with a headline over each scene. These prints can be recognized by being printed very carefully with black ink, and by the fact that there's no text on the back of the paper.

The astrologer, "Der Sternensecher" with black letters, is only known in a single exemplar.
Holbein Proofs, Astrologer

They are often referred to as "printer's proofs" or "proof impressions" but this is misleading. A "proof" would mean that a printer had made a single sheet to ensure the quality, or maybe that the woodcutter had secured himself a single sheet to display a sample of his skill. In contrast the great number of these prints that still exist shows that we are dealing with proper publications.

Most of these series have headlines with "ordinary" Roman letters, slightly inclined. There are no complete collections with 41 proofs, for all are lacking the astrologer. The explanation is probably simply that 10 images have been printed on each of 4 sheets.(4)

There is another series, where the headlines are written with "Gothic" black letters, and here we find a "Sternensecher" (picture to the left). Only one copy is known of this series and six of the scenes are missing, while five are lacking the headline.

The following table is from Woltmann. The left column is the complete copy (but without astrologer) from the National Library of France. The right column is the series with the astrologer and Gothic headlines, which also resides in the National Library of France.

The sequence is very different from the one found in the later book publications. First come the four scenes from the Old Testament. Then come the clergy (including the physician), then the laity and then the women. The ossuary, which in the books marks the beginning of the dance, instead marks the end and leads onto the final scene with Judgment Day. As always(5) the sequence ends with the Escutcheon of Death.


1. Die schöpffung aller ding.1. Die Schöpffung aller ding.
2. Adam Eua im Paradiss.2. Adam Eua im Paradiss.
3. Vsstribung Ade Eue.3. Vsstribung Ade Eue.
4. Adam bawgt die erden.4. Adam bawgt die erden.
5. Der Bapst.5. Der bapst.
6. Der Cardinal.6. Der Cardinal.
7. Der Bischoff.7. Der Bischoff.
8. Der Thumherr.8. Der Thumherr.
9. Der Apt.9. Der Apt.
10. Der Pfarrherr.10. [The priest is missing]
11. Der Predicant.11. Der Predicant.
12. Der Münch.12. Der Munch.
13. Der Artzet.13. Der Artzet.
14. Der Keyser.14. Der Keyser.
15. Der Künig.15. Der Künig.
16. Der Hertzog.16. Der Hertzog.
17. Der Richter.17. Der Richter.
18. Der Fürspräch.18. [The lawyer is present but the headline is missing]
19. Der Groff.19. Der Groff.
20. Der Ritter.20. Der Ritter.
21. Der Edelman.21. Der Edelmann.
22. Der Ratssherr.22. [The senator is present but the headline is missing]
23. Der Rychman.23. Der Sternensecher.
24. Der Kauffman.24. [The rich man is missing]
25. Der Krämer.25. [The merchant is missing]
26. Der Schiffman.26. [The peddler is present but the headline is missing]
27. Der Ackerman.27. [The sailor is missing]
28. Der Altman.28. [The peasant is present but the headline is missing]
29. Die Keyserinn.29. [The old mand is present but the headline is missing]
30. Die Küniginn.30. Die Keyserin.
31. Die Hertzoginn.31. Die Künigin.
32. Die Greffinn.32. Die Hertzogin.
33. Die Edelfraw.33. Die Greffin.
34. Die Aptissinn.34. Die Edelfraw.
35, Die Nunne.35. Die Aptissin.
36. Dass Altweyb.36. Die Nunn.
37. Dass Jung kint.37. [The old woman is missing]
38. Gebeyn aller menschen.38. [The child is missing]
39. Dass Jüngst gericht.39. Gebein aller menschen.
40. Die Wapen dess Thotss.40. Das letzst Urteyl Gottes.
41. Gedenck das end.

Alfred Woltmann, Holbein und seine Zeit, 1868, vol 2, page 407.

In the column to the right, the image of the Escutcheon of Death has the headline »Gedenck das end«, "consider the end". Woltmann points out, that this is similar to the Bible quote that would accompany the image in the publications from 1538 and later: »Memorare novissima &c«.

This is from the Vulgate-Bible: »In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis«. In the King James Bible, Ecclesiasticus 7:36 is translated thus, »Whatsoever thou takest in hand, remember the end, and thou shalt never do amiss«. As a sidenote, the quote »Memorare novissima tua« also finishes the boring sermon at the end of Copenhagen's dance of death (but I haven't bothered to translate this sermon).

Woltmann uses this to argue that the series with the Gothic headings must be the newer: Partly because »Gedenck das end« prefigures the publication from 1538, and partly because the astrologer has been included.

External links

The Woodcuts in the Original Sequence

Holbein Proofs 1526: Creation
Holbein Proofs 1526: Paradise
Holbein Proofs 1526: Expulsion
After the Fall
Holbein Proofs 1526: After the Fall
Holbein Proofs 1526: Pope
Holbein Proofs 1526: Cardinal
Holbein Proofs 1526: Bishop
Holbein Proofs 1526: Canon
Holbein Proofs 1526: Abbot
Holbein Proofs 1526: Priest
Holbein Proofs 1526: Preacher
Holbein Proofs 1526: Monk
Holbein Proofs 1526: Physician
Holbein Proofs 1526: Emperor
Holbein Proofs 1526: King
Holbein Proofs 1526: Duke
Holbein Proofs 1526: Judge
Holbein Proofs 1526: Lawyer
Holbein Proofs 1526: Count
Holbein Proofs 1526: Knight
Holbein Proofs 1526: Nobleman
Holbein Proofs 1526: Senator
Holbein Proofs 1526: Usurer
Holbein Proofs 1526: Merchant
Holbein Proofs 1526: Peddler
Holbein Proofs 1526: Sailor
Holbein Proofs 1526: Peasant
Old man
Holbein Proofs 1526: Old man
Holbein Proofs 1526: Empress
Holbein Proofs 1526: Queen
Holbein Proofs 1526: Duchess
Holbein Proofs 1526: Countess
Holbein Proofs 1526: Noblewoman
Holbein Proofs 1526: Abbess
Holbein Proofs 1526: Nun
Old woman
Holbein Proofs 1526: Old woman
Holbein Proofs 1526: Child
Holbein Proofs 1526: Ossuary
Judgment Day
Holbein Proofs 1526: Judgment Day
Holbein Proofs 1526: Escutcheon
Holbein Proofs 1526: Astrologer

Other interpreters of Holbein's dance of death


→ Hans Holbein (1526) ←
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)

In 1538 the woodcuts were published in books with Bible quotes and short verses.
Holbein, The Pope
Heinrich Vogtherr's copies follow the so-called proofs.
Vogtherr, Cardinal

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

Hans Lützelburger . . .: I quote from Holbein und seine Zeit af Alfred Woltmann, 1874, page 194.

Unter denen, welche Ansprüche »aus Hansen Formschneiders seligen Gut« haben, ist auch Melchior Trechsel von Lyon mit einem geleisteten Vorschuss von 17 Gulden 15 Schilling eingetragen. Als die Hinterlassenschaft im October 1527 endlich regulirt ist, erscheint Trechsel nicht mehr unter den Gläubigern die abzufinden sind, da er ja durch die ausgelieferten Formen Deckung erhalten.

The round drawings are described by Woltmann in Holbein und seine Zeit, 1868, vol 2, page 109, but I prefer to quote him in English. From Holbein and His Times, 1872, page 269:

That the drawings were at any rate completed before Holbein left Basle in the autumn of 1526, appears from a circumstance until now wholly unnoticed. The rich collection of the Dance of Death in the cabinet of engravings in the Berlin Museum, contains copies of twenty-three sheets of the woodcut series, in Indian-ink etchings on brown-coloured paper, of a circular form, about five inches in diameter. The copies are true, although enlarged, and are only so far different as resulted from the change of form. Coarse, but executed with understanding, they seem to be sketches for small glass paintings. They are made after originals, which appear in the first proof impressions, and it is also to be perceived that they are not executed after drawings but after the woodcuts themselves; otherwise they would be taken from the contrary side, and would scarcely bear Hans Lützelburger'a monogram on the sheet of the Duchess. On the fourth sheet, that of the Emperor, the date, 1527, stands over the throne.

The alert reader will notice that Woltmann's two arguments are exactly the same that he used to prove that Ruben's drawings were not the original drawings by Holbein.

Or 8 woodcuts on 5 sheets, etc.

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

In Literatur der Todtentänze, 1840, page 9, Maßmann brings a list of the series in Berlin. According to him the sequence is very odd and the series starts with the Escutcheon of Death.

After several weeks of headache and conflicting sources, I have come to the conclusion that it's best to ignore Maßmann.