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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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)
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:
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.