Georg Scharffenberg

The front page of the 1796-edition. For details, click here and here.
Der Todten-Tantz
Georg Scharffenberg's signature with year
GS 1576

T his book may be the source of one of the most persistent (and wrong) myths: That Holbein should have been the artist behind Basel's dance of death. Let it be said at once: The dance of death in Basel was painted decades before Holbein was born, and there are no indications anywhere that Holbein should have had anything to do with neither repairs nor improvements.

The book is a hybrid. Originally the woodcuts were published in the book Zwen Todentäntz in 1588 by Huldrich Frölich. The text was partly Basel's dance of death, partly Bern's dance of death and partly verses in Latin. Most of the woodcuts were more or less exact copies of Holbein's dance of death while only a few had anything to do with the dance of death in Basel. Frölich wrote that these woodcuts were »schönen und zu beyden Todentäntzen dienstlichen Figuren« — i.e. these were "serviceable" to illustrate both dances of death.

In 1715, the Mechel family took over the woodcuts and published them along with the text from Basel's dance of death under the very misleading title, »Der Todten-Tantz, wie derselbe in der weitberühmten Stadt Basel, als ein Spiegel menschlicher Beschaffenheit, gantz künstlich mit lebendigen Farben gemahlet, nicht ohne nützliche Verwunderung zu sehen ist« (picture to the left). People who bought the book were bound to believe the pictures showed a representation of the dance of death in Basel.

Most of the woodcuts bear a mark in the shape of a woodcutter's knife knife and the initials GS, which are presumed to stand for Georg Scharffenberg (ca. 1530 - ca. 1607). A single of them, the picture of the Expulsion, also bears the year 1576 (picture to the right) meaning that the woodcuts are 12 years older than Frölich's book.

A book from ca. 1576/1588 would be our oldest witness to Basel's dance of death, but as already mentioned, most of the pictures are copies of Holbein, and besides, Scharffenberg's copies are very inaccurate. We can't use Scharffenberg as a witness to anything.

Take for instance Scharffenberg's picture of the pope. Scharffenberg has evidently spliced it together with Amman's »Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auff Erden« from 1568. The only elements Scharffenberg has used from Holbein's picture are the long crosses and Death disguised as a cardinal.

Holbein's Imagines Mortis: Pope
Hans Holbein 1538
Jobst Amman 1568: The pope
Jobst Amman 1568
Scharffenberg 1576: Pope
Scharffenberg 1576

Another example is the blind man. In Holbein's woodcut, Death carefully leads the blind man by holding his stick. It's quite different in Basel's dance of death, where Death is malicious and cuts the string to the little guide dog. Scharffenberg combines these two pictures.

Holbein: Blind Man
Holbein
Basel's dance of death. Blind Man
Basel's dance of death: Blind Man
Scharffenberg 1576: Blind Man
Scharffenberg

A third example is the noblewoman. Holbein lets Death beat the drum in front of the newlywed couple. The picture of Death drumming is one Holbein has copied from Basel's dance of death (see the page about the noblewoman for details), but Scharffenberg "improves" the picture by replacing the drum with a strapped-on skull — an idea he had taken from Basel's dance of death.

Holbein's Imagines Mortis: Noblewoman / Newlywed couple
Holbein
Basel's dance of death. Pope
Basel's dance of death: Pope
Scharffenberg 1576: Noblewoman / Newlywed couple
Scharffenberg

Page from 1870
Scharffenberg 1870: The preacher
T ncredibly enough, the book was reprinted, using the same woodcuts, for several centuries, which contributed to the misunderstanding about Holbein and Basel's dance of death. The thousands of tourists, who bought the book throughout centuries after a visit to the Dominican church in Basel, must have been puzzled, when they returned home and opened the book.

From a Holbein-collector's point of view, the book is deficient in that it lacks several pictures: Creation, Life after the Fall, All Men's Bones (the picture, where Holbein most clearly was inspired by the dance in Basel), nobleman, lawyer, astrologer, duchess, the escutcheon of Death, waggoner, beggar and young man.

Six woodcuts must have disappeared after the 1608 edition by Frölich, because duke, abbess, monk, old woman, sailor and count were not included in the books published by the Mechel Family and Mähly-Lamy for more than a century. Besides this, king, cardinal and young woman are so free interpretations that they are impossible to recognize.

Some of the later issues of this book are lithographic reproductions with German and French texts on the left page-opening. The woodcuts were used as late as 1870 (picture to the right).

Read more about Huldreich Frölich, the Family Mechel and Basel's dance of death.

Resources

Front page, 1740
Scharffenberg 1576: Front page, 1740
Front page, 1796
Scharffenberg 1576: Front page, 1796
Front page, 1796
Scharffenberg 1576: Front page, 1796
The Fall
Scharffenberg 1576: The Fall
Expulsion
Scharffenberg 1576: Expulsion
The Pope
Scharffenberg 1576: The Pope
Emperor
Scharffenberg 1576: Emperor
Empress
Scharffenberg 1576: Empress
Queen
Scharffenberg 1576: Queen
Bishop
Scharffenberg 1576: Bishop
Duke
Scharffenberg 1576: Duke
Abbot
Scharffenberg 1576: Abbot
Abbess
Scharffenberg 1576: Abbess
Canon
Scharffenberg 1576: Canon
Judge
Scharffenberg 1576: Judge
Senator
Scharffenberg 1576: Senator
Preacher
Scharffenberg 1576: Preacher
Priest
Scharffenberg 1576: Priest
Monk
Scharffenberg 1576: Monk
Nun
Scharffenberg 1576: Nun
Old woman
Scharffenberg 1576: Old woman
Physician
Scharffenberg 1576: Physician
Rich man
Scharffenberg 1576: Rich man
Merchant
Scharffenberg 1576: Merchant
Sailor
Scharffenberg 1576: Sailor
Knight
Scharffenberg 1576: Knight
Count
Scharffenberg 1576: Count
Old man
Scharffenberg 1576: Old man
Countess
Scharffenberg 1576: Countess
Noblewoman
Scharffenberg 1576: Noblewoman
Peddler
Scharffenberg 1576: Peddler
Peasant
Scharffenberg 1576: Peasant
Child
Scharffenberg 1576: Child
Judgement Day
Scharffenberg 1576: Judgement Day
Soldier
Scharffenberg 1576: Soldier
Gambler
Scharffenberg 1576: Gambler
Robber
Scharffenberg 1576: Robber
Blind man
Scharffenberg 1576: Blind man
Drunkard
Scharffenberg 1576: Drunkard
Fool
Scharffenberg 1576: Fool
Heathens
Scharffenberg 1576: Heathens
Cook
Scharffenberg 1576: Cook
Painter
Scharffenberg 1576: Painter
King
Scharffenberg 1576: King
Cardinal
Scharffenberg 1576: Cardinal
Maid
Scharffenberg 1576: Maid

Other interpreters of Holbein's dance of death


Up to Holbein's great dance of death