The Emperor

Holbein Proofs, Emperor
Detail from original woodcut
Holbein's Imagines Mortis: Emperor

T he emperor is one of the more puzzling pictures. Many commentators think the emperor is about to pass judgment on the kneeling poor man, and that Death, who's always on the poor people's side, intervenes and breaks the symbol of his power — the sword. Many commentators have remarked that the emperor looks angrily at the richly dressed, standing man, and takes this as a sign that the emperor will judge in favour of the poor man.

There are lots of problems with this interpretation.

The first problem is that it is self-contradictory: Why would Death interrupt the process and break the emperor's sword, if the emperor was going to judge the way Death wanted it? The second problem is that there's no sword-tip to be found anywhere on the floor.

From Tower of London:
The Sword of Mercy lies between 2 other swords

The third problem is that the kneeling man isn't particularly poorly dressed. There are far poorer people to be found elsewhere in this dance of death, e.g. the peasant and the beggar and the people who implore the duke, the advocate and the senator.

The fourth problem is that it's hard to determine whether the emperor is looking at the standing man or at his broken sword. The fifth problem is that the emperor doesn't look particularly angry in Holbein's original woodcut (picture to the left). And the sixth problem is that one can't use the direction of the emperor's gaze to read his mood, since Death is busy twisting his head.

But the biggest problem, which seems to have escaped most of the commentators, is that a shortened sword — a so-called Curtana/Cortana — is a symbol of mercy. The broken sword is used for coronation of English kings (see picture to the right), and the king/emperor uses the sword to raise his subjects to knighthood.

A much more obvious interpretation then, is that the emperor is about to knight the kneeling man. The picture thus becomes a counterpart of the picture of the pope, who's about to crown the emperor. Why is Death turning the emperor's head? Well, that's what he does. A part of the humour is the total disrespect Death displays towards the high and worthy people: Death jovially puts his arm around the pope's shoulders, turns the emperor's head around, twists the cardinal's hat, steals the abbot's ensigns of power and drags him away, stares into the nobleman's eyes while tearing at his clothes, fiddles with the duke's clothes etc. etc.

Variations: Birckmann adds more persons on both sides of the emperor; the emperor looks away from his sword; the pillars are human figures. These changes are copied by Valvasor, but ignored by Hollar/Deuchar.

Various Artists

Holbein Proofs (1526)
Holbein Proofs 1526: Emperor
Holbein (1538)
Holbein 1538: Emperor
Vogtherr (1544)
Vogtherr 1544: Emperor
Valgrisi (1546)
Valgrisi 1546: Emperor
Birckmann (1555)
Birckmann 1555: Emperor
Juan de Icíar (1555)
Juan de Icíar 1555: Emperor
Scharffenberg (1576)
Scharffenberg 1576: Emperor
Straub (1581)
Straub 1581: Emperor
Chytraeus (1590)
Chytraeus 1590: Emperor
Glissenti (1596)
Glissenti 1596: Emperor
Donaueschingen (1600)
Donaueschingen 1600: Emperor
Kieser (1617)
Kieser 1617: Emperor
Hollar (1651)
Hollar 1651: Emperor
Doodt Vermaskert (1654)
Doodt Vermaskert 1654: Emperor
Thomas Neale (1657)
Thomas Neale 1657: Emperor
Valvasor (1682)
Valvasor 1682: Emperor
Doodt Vermaskert (1698)
Doodt Vermaskert 1698: Emperor
Mechel (1780)
Mechel 1780: Emperor
Deuchar (1788)
Deuchar 1788: Emperor
Bewick (1789)
Bewick 1789: Emperor
Anderson (1810)
Anderson 1810: Emperor
Bechstein (1831)
Bechstein 1831: Emperor
Schlotthauer (1832)
Schlotthauer 1832: Emperor
Douce (1833)
Douce 1833: Emperor
Curmer (1858)
Curmer 1858: Emperor
Wildridge (1887)
Wildridge 1887: Emperor
Deuchar (1887)
Deuchar 1887: Emperor