he pope is about to crown a kneeling emperor. The pope lets the emperor kiss his feet, which was precisely one of those acts that Martin Luther already in 1520 had characterized as acts of the antichrist. The true Christ washed his disciples' feet, while the Antichrist makes every tyrant and pagan prince kiss his feet (picture to the right).
Death jovially puts his arm around the pope, while the other hand holds on to a crutch. Another Death has cleverly disguised himself as a cardinal and sends a crooked smile to the reader, while aping the cardinal in front.
The different artists show clearly that the emperor has the pope's foot in his face. Only Bechstein (to the left) is more ambiguous. His drawing could easily give the impression that the emperor is folding his hands in a silent prayer. Maybe he's praying that he won't contract athlete's foot in the mouth?
devil is crawling over the pope's head, and another devil comes flying with a letter of indulgence. The popes armrest is a cherub with devil's wings.
Holbein may have copied these devils with horns, wings and twisted tails from Mantegna's picture of Christ in Limbo(1) (picture to the right).
On the letter of indulgence is a pseudo-inscription, which Vogtherr has replaced with a legible text (picture to the left): "ve tibi corona Superbia mea". I'm not an expert on Latin, but it sounds like a variation of Isaiah 28:1 "vae coronae superbiae". Isaiah means "Woe to the crown of pride", so the flying devil probably says "Woe to you, my crown of pride".
The picture of the pope is the most problematic (for the publisher), and presumably the reason why Les Simulachres & Historiées was published anonymously and with much delay. The other pictures are more ambiguous, and could always be explained away by saying that the artist had portrayed a single corrupt cardinal or a single incompetent bishop. But there is only one single infallible pope, so when Holbein depicts the pope surrounded by devils and corpses (and does the same with the pope in the dance of death alphabet), then the address is unequivocal and the message is unmistakable. Therefore most of the copyists chose to remove the devils — if not at first, then in later issues.
As the picture to the left and right show, Christian de Mechel's etchings are available both with and without devils.
We saw how Vogtherr not only included the devils but placed a legible text, "ve tibi corona Superbia mea", on the scroll. Four years later the devils had been removed.
Vincenzo Valgrisi had included the devils, but when his woodcuts were reprinted by Glissenti they were censored. It's fairly easy to see the "plug" that was used to replace the devil in the curtains.
Glissenti gave the same treatment to the devils on Valgrisi's woodcut of the senator.
Variations: Aldegrever makes a free interpretation as usual and has also removed
one of the devils.
Eberhard Kieser copies Aldegrever, but removes both devils, as most other copyists do.
All that Scharffenberg uses is the picture of Death as Cardinal — the rest of his picture is copied from Amman (see the page about Scharffenberg for details).
Birckmann lets Death crawl behind the pope, and Hollar and Deuchar imitates him.