Hans Holbein's Dance of Death

Creation of Eve
Holbein Proofs, Creation
Holbein Proofs, Ossuary

H ans Holbein the Younger was born during the winter 1497-1498 in Germany. He moved to Basel (Switzerland) in 1514 where he acquired fame from his woodcuts. In 1532 he moved to England where he became known for his realistic portraits. He painted about 150 portraits - including prospective wives for Henry VIIIth. Holbein died October 1543 from the plague.

The woodcuts must have been produced in Basel between 1522 (when Hans Lützelburger came to Basel) and before 1526 - the year Lützelburger died. The dance of death alphabet was used in books as early as August 1524, but for unknown reasons — presumably because of the religious and social criticism — twelve years passed before Holbein's great dance of death was published in book form.

There still exists a number of printed sheets, the so-called "printer's proofs", with German titles such as Vßtribung Ade Eue and Der Rych man. Most of these prints only include 40 woodcuts with the astrologer missing. The reason is probably the simple fact that 40 is a nice round number, which is easy to distribute on 4 or 5 printed pages.(1)

It wasn't before 1538 that the 41 woodcuts (including the astrologer) were published by the brothers Melchior and Gaspard Trechsel in Lyon under the title »Les simulachres & Historiées Faces de la Mort, avtant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées«. Gone were the German headlines — instead each picture had been furnished with one or two Bible quotes at the top and a quatrain by Gilles Corrozet(2) below. This means that Holbein's dance of death is not a dance of death, but an emblem book.

Social Criticism

The pope performing an unchristian act while being surrounded by corpses and devils with letters of indulgence.
Holbein Proofs, Pope

T he book was banned by the French general inquisitor Vidal de Bécanis, and one understands why — considering the ecclesiastical and social criticism. Those were uneasy times, with fights between Protestants and Catholics, and people still remembered the peasants' rebellion of the 1520'ies.

The worst scene is probably the the pope, who in a most unchristian way — lets the emperor kiss his feet, surrounded by corpses and devils. Admittedly the cardinal and bishop are also ambiguous, but they can be re-interpreted and explained away. Furthermore a publisher could always defend himself by saying the pictures depicted a single corrupt cardinal or a single incompetent bishop. But there's only one single infallible pope, so in this case the address is distinct — and it's hard to explain away, why the devils are flying and crawling at the Pope's court. Most of the copyists (see the list below) has chosen to remove the devils from the pope — if not at first, then in later editions.

The judge is being attacked by a corpse with an iron collar and chain — presumably representing a former victim.
Holbein Proofs, Judge

Among ecclesiasticals being ridiculed are the cardinal, who's busy selling indulgences, and the bishop, who's an incompetent shepherd. The well-nourished abbot and the abbess have sworn to forsake the temptations of this world, but are still protesting wildly and fighting screamingly. Death does not come conveniently for them. The monk clutches his charity box and its contents. The canon is a fool, who only thinks of his hunting falcon and can't find his way into church. The nun, who is married to Jesus, is enamoured by a young troubadour sitting in her bed.

The lay world isn't spared either. The the emperor is about to pass judgment on a poor man, when Death breaks his sword. The judge ignores the poor man in favour of the rich man, who has his hands in his money bag. The lawyer receives cold cash on the street. The senator ignores the poor man, while a devil uses a pair of bellows to blow evil into his ears. The count prays for his life, while Death is dressed as a peasant — a reminder of the peasants' rebellion. The duke turns away from the poor in disgust, and fails to notice Death.

Is Holbein's dance of death a dance of death?

The ossuary: Lots of music
Holbein Proofs, Ossuary

H ans Holbein's Dance of Death became incredibly popular and practically came to define the genre. Holbein meant the end of the earlier monumental dances of death where the entire society is joined in one large chain dance. Instead, the reader is presented with a series of independent scenes where Death seeks out his victims in the Vatican, by the emperor's throne, in the cellar, on the street, in the forest, on the sea, on the road, etc

The woodcuts were published as emblems, and one might ask whether it is even a dance of death, but the short answer is: Yes. It is very much a dance:

Death dances with the young woman
Holbein, Young woman

Each scene features a dancing Death dragging a reluctant human away, and there's plenty of music: The first time Death appears is at the expulsion from Paradise, where Death plays the guitar, while the actual dance starts at the ossuary, with horns, trombone, lyre and timpani (pictured left). In the rest of the dance there is bell (the priest), xylophone (old lady), dulcimer (old man), drum (noblewoman), violin (duchess), marine trumpet (peddler), bagpipes (fool) and horn (young man). A young man must play the guitar while Death dances away with young woman (pictured right).

In short: an impressive show of dance and music. In comparison, the French Danse Macabre had no music at all (it was only in the second edition that four dead musicians were added), the dance in Lübeck had only a flute at the beginning, and Tallinn has a bagpipe at the beginning.

Holbein's Dance of Death is like any other dance of death a mirror of society, starting with the highest in society: the pope, the emperor, the king, the cardinal, etc., which moves down through society's hierarchy to end with society's weakest: the peasant and the child.

The dance of death is not content with simply showing society: the dance contains — as we have already seen — a great portion of social criticism and satire.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that "something new has been added", so elsewhere we will take a look at Holbein's sources and inspiration.

Different Editions


Hans Holbein (1526) - so-called proofs
Hans Holbein (1538) - the various editions
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)
Thy Grief (2022)

On Vogtherr's woodcut the text is legible.
The text on the letter of indulgence.

I n spite of the ban, the book was re-printed in many editions. In the 1542-edition, Corrozet's verses were translated from French to Latin by Georg Aemilius.(3)

In 1545, the picture of a beggar was inserted in another section of the volume.(4)

In 1547,(5) the beggar became a part of the dance of death, and the series was expanded by soldier, waggoner, gambler, robber, blind man, drunkard, fool and four children.

After several editions, the series was expanded in 1562 with young woman, young man and more children. At that time both Lützelburger and Holbein were dead(6), and the new woodcuts show it: In some of them, like soldier and waggoner, one can sense the hand of Lützelburger, but generally the quality is lower and varying.

Holbein's woodcuts have been incredibly popular even since — and have been re-interpreted and copied by many artists. To the right are some of the editions:

Birckmann's copies have inspired Valvasor, Hollar and Deuchar.
Birckmann, Soldier
Holbein 1538: Creation
The Fall
Holbein 1538: The Fall
Holbein 1538: Expulsion
After the Fall
Holbein 1538: After the Fall
Bones of All Men
Holbein 1538: Bones of All Men
The Pope
Holbein 1538: The Pope
Holbein 1538: Emperor
Holbein 1538: King
Holbein 1538: Cardinal
Holbein 1538: Empress
Holbein 1538: Queen
Holbein 1538: Bishop
Holbein 1538: Duke
Holbein 1538: Abbot
Holbein 1538: Abbess
Holbein 1538: Nobleman
Holbein 1538: Canon
Holbein 1538: Judge
Holbein 1538: Lawyer
Holbein 1538: Senator
Holbein 1538: Preacher
Holbein 1538: Priest
Holbein 1538: Monk
Holbein 1538: Nun
Old woman
Holbein 1538: Old woman
Holbein 1538: Physician
Holbein 1538: Astrologer
Rich man
Holbein 1538: Rich man
Holbein 1538: Merchant
Holbein 1538: Sailor
Holbein 1538: Knight
Holbein 1538: Count
Old man
Holbein 1538: Old man
Holbein 1538: Countess
Holbein 1538: Noblewoman
Holbein 1538: Duchess
Holbein 1538: Peddler
Holbein 1538: Peasant
Holbein 1538: Child
Judgment Day
Holbein 1538: Judgment Day
The escutcheon
Holbein 1538: The escutcheon
Holbein 1547: Soldier
Holbein 1547: Waggoner
Holbein 1547: Gambler
Holbein 1547: Robber
Blind man
Holbein 1547: Blind man
Holbein 1547: Beggar
Holbein 1547: Drunkard
Holbein 1547: Fool
Young woman
Holbein 1562: Young woman
Young man
Holbein 1562: Young man
Holbein 1547: Child
Holbein 1547: Children
Holbein 1547: Children
Holbein 1547: Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Holbein 1562: Children
Creation, 1547
Holbein 1547: Creation, 1547
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein : Scabbard
Holbein 1545: Beggar
Holbein: A
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: A
Holbein: B
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: B
Holbein: C
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: C
Holbein: D
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: D
Holbein: E
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: E
Holbein: F
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: F
Holbein: G
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: G
Holbein: H
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: H
Holbein: I
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: I
Holbein: K
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: K
Holbein: L
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: L
Holbein: M
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: M
Holbein: N
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: N
Holbein: O
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: O
Holbein: P
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: P
Holbein: Q
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: Q
Holbein: R
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: R
Holbein: S
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: S
Holbein: T
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: T
Holbein: V
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: V
Holbein: W
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: W
Holbein: X
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: X
Holbein: Y
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: Y
Holbein: Z
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: Z
Holbein: M
Holbein Alphabet 1526: Holbein: M

External Links

More about Holbein

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)

Or 4 woodcuts on 10 sheets, etc.

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

Gilles Corrozet was author, bookseller and historian.

He was one of those historians, who visited St. Innocents' cemetery without mentioning the Danse Macabre. He was also the owner of the Manuscript Français 1186.

Georg Aemilius . . .: 1517-1569, (also called Oemmel, Aemylius, Emilius, Öhmler and Oemler). Several authors claim that Georg Aemilius was Martin Luther's brother-in-law, but this is incorrect. It was Georgs father, Nicolas Oemeler, whom Luther called his boyhood friend and brother-in-law — and brother-in-law should be understood in a very broad sense, since Nicolas Oemeler and Luther's brother Jakob had married two sisters.
another section . . .: All the books mentioned are anthologies. Even when the art of book printing was in its infancy, 41 pictures was too little to fill an entire volume, and therefore Holbein's woodcuts were bundled with various didactic writings. The mixture varied from edition to edition.
1547. . .: Many sources say 1545, but I stick with Hollstein, who has been unable to trace such a 53-pictures book from 1545. (German Engravings, Etchings, Woodcuts 1400-1700 volume 14, page 203 bottom).
Holbein died in 1543, even though a lot of older books claim Holbein didn't die before 1554.