Janez Vajkard Valvasor

Title page.
Valvasor, Theatrum Mortis
The year with Roman numerals.
5+51+500+50+5+5+6+6+51+1000+1= 1680
50+1+1+5+605+6+6+1006 = 1680
Valvasor, Theatrum Mortis HumanŠ, 1680

V alvasor (1641-1693) was also known as Johann Weichard Valvasor. He was a Slovenian nobleman from Ljubljana (Laybach), and he had established a printery in his castle with a large library and collection of prints.

In 1682 he published the book Theatrum Mortis HumanŠ Tripartitum. In fact, the year is a bit uncertain because the title page of each of the three parts indicate the year 1681, and in the beginning of the book there's a chronogram with the year 1680 (picture to the right).

As the title says, the book is in three parts, but only the first part is a dance of death. The second part deals with the subject of various "types of death" (i.e. the death of famous historical persons), and the third part shows 42 pictures of people being tortured in hell, according to what sins they have committed when living.

The pictures are framed with very detailed decorations of flowers, birds, insects and fruits. These frames are a part of the copperplates (sometimes you can see how the plants cross the border) and they are all different. The bottom half of the frame for the king and the robber are almost identical and features among other things the same fable by Aesop, but it's only the bottom halves that are identical (click the images to the the frames).

Frontispiece; The Triumph of Death
Valvasor, Theatrum Mortis
Death appears even in those scenes where Holbein had left him out.
Valvasor, Child

The frontispiece depicts the Triumph of Death (picture to the left) and was designed by Valvasor himself. The crowned Death is sitting on some sort of tomb chamber, while other Deaths are riding out through the portal on a war elephant, camel and horses. This probably symbolizes Death's power over the four continents, Europe (horses), Africa (elephant), Asia (camel) and the Americas (lion).(1) In front of the procession are Adam and Eve bound, along with the Tree of Wisdom and the subtil serpent.

The illustrations were executed by Andreas Trost and Johann (Janez) Koch, and they follow the versions invented by Arnold Birckmann very closely. This is also true for Hollar and David Deuchar, but Valvasor is even more consequent: Hollar (and Deuchar) copied some of their scenes from Holbein, but Valvasor has only copied Birckmann. The only exception is the expulsion, where Valvasor doesn't follow Birckmann but on the other hand doesn't make an exact copy of Holbein either.

Valvasor deviates from Birckmann in one way, namely that Death is added to those scenes, where Holbein and Birckmann didn't show him originally. This means the beggar and the chubby kids.

Valvasor, Crucifixion

The sequence is a story in itself, for it is not the same as Birckmann's. It seems that Valvasor has basically chosen the same order as Heinrich Vogtherr, which harks back to the so-called printer's proofs.

First come the four scenes from The Old Testament: Creation, the Fall of Man, the Expulsion and life after the Fall. Then follow the clergy, and Valvasor deviates from Vogtherr by including the abbess and the nun here instead of bundling them together with the other women.

Then follow the lay people and Valvasor inserts the 12 scenes that Vogtherr didn't have, where they make sense. For instance the soldier is placed after the nobleman — they are both fighting Death with a sword — and after the soldier comes the robber. To the average citizen, soldiers and robbers have been two sides of the same coin. Then follow the women and the child, and Valvasor has — very logically — placed the four images with little boys (putti) here.

The ossuary has been placed towards the end, right before Judgment Day, just like Vogtherr has done. This means that the many dead musicians are not playing a prelude to the dance of death, but rather the resurrection.

Valvasor also adds a crucifixion scene (to the right). The only other artist to add a crucifixion scene to Holbein's dance of death is Vogtherr.

Valvasor and Hollar

Sleeve by Birckmann
Sleeve by Holbein

B oth Valvasor and Hollar copy Birckmann. Valvasor is from Slovenia and Hollar is from Czechia. Is it possible then, that Valvasor might be a sort of "missing link" between Birckmann and Hollar? Has Hollar copied Valvasor?

Hardly, since Hollar's copperplates are 31 years older than Valvasor's. If further proof is needed, then look at the sleeve that Birckmann has designed for the troubadour who plays for the nun. Birckmann's sleeve (to the left) is puffy at the top and tight below, while Holbein's original sleeve is shorter and made of strips. Hollar (and Deuchar) copies Birckmann's sleeve, and Hollar hasn't done this via Valvasor, because in Valvasor's version of the nun, the troubadour has been removed.

Is it the other way around then? Has Valvasor copied Hollar's book, which was 31 years old by then? This is hardly credible either. First of all Valvasor has 53 scenes (including 4 of chubby boys), while Hollar only has 30. Secondly Valvasor is much more Birckmann-o-phile than Hollar. Hollar sometimes ignores Birckmann's deviations: In the pictures of Creation, Temptation and Fall, the emperor and the duke, Hollar has prefered to copy Holbein's originals. But even in these 4 cases, Valvasor shows the same variations as Birckmann, so there's no indication Valvasor has ever looked at Hollar.

The conclusion is then, that Valvasor and Hollar independently of each other have chosen to copy Birckmann instead of Holbein.


Theatrum Mortis
Valvasor 1682: Theatrum Mortis
Theatrum Mortis
Valvasor 1682: Theatrum Mortis
Valvasor 1682: Creation
The Fall
Valvasor 1682: The Fall
Valvasor 1682: Expulsion
After the Fall
Valvasor 1682: After the Fall
Bones of All Men
Valvasor 1682: Bones of All Men
The Pope
Valvasor 1682: The Pope
Valvasor 1682: Emperor
Valvasor 1682: King
Valvasor 1682: Cardinal
Valvasor 1682: Empress
Valvasor 1682: Queen
Valvasor 1682: Bishop
Valvasor 1682: Duke
Valvasor 1682: Abbot
Valvasor 1682: Abbess
Valvasor 1682: Nobleman
Valvasor 1682: Canon
Valvasor 1682: Judge
Valvasor 1682: Lawyer
Valvasor 1682: Senator
Valvasor 1682: Preacher
Valvasor 1682: Priest
Valvasor 1682: Monk
Valvasor 1682: Nun
Old woman
Valvasor 1682: Old woman
Valvasor 1682: Physician
Valvasor 1682: Astrologer
Rich man
Valvasor 1682: Rich man
Valvasor 1682: Merchant
Valvasor 1682: Sailor
Valvasor 1682: Knight
Valvasor 1682: Count
Old man
Valvasor 1682: Old man
Valvasor 1682: Countess
Valvasor 1682: Noblewoman
Valvasor 1682: Duchess
Valvasor 1682: Peddler
Valvasor 1682: Peasant
Valvasor 1682: Child
Judgment Day
Valvasor 1682: Judgment Day
The escutcheon
Valvasor 1682: The escutcheon
Valvasor 1682: Soldier
Valvasor 1682: Waggoner
Valvasor 1682: Gambler
Valvasor 1682: Robber
Blind man
Valvasor 1682: Blind man
Valvasor 1682: Beggar
Valvasor 1682: Drunkard
Valvasor 1682: Fool
Valvasor 1682: Child
Valvasor 1682: Children
Valvasor 1682: Children
Valvasor 1682: Children
Valvasor 1682: Crucifixion

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 IcÝar (1555)
Valentin Wagner (1557)
JiřÝ 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 ←
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 LÚon Curmer (1858)
Tindall Wildridge (1887)
Holbein: The nun and the minstrel.
Holbein Proofs, Nun
Birckmann: The nun and the minstrel.
Birckmann, Nun
Vogtherr: Crucifixion
Vogtherr, Crucifix

Footnotes: (1)

This interpretation was suggested by Mischa von Perger.

The different symbolic representations of the four continents vary with respect to the animals. Africa was typically represented by African animals such as lion, camel, elephant and crocodile.

In the Baroque period, the Americas were portrayed as an alligator or armadillo, but sometimes also as a lion. Maybe the artists were thinking of a puma or mountain lion?