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 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.
|Hans Holbein 1538|
|Jobst Amman 1568|
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.
|Basel's dance of death: Blind Man|
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.
|Basel's dance of death: Pope|
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.