The Canon

The Canon
Holbein Proofs, Canon

The fools from Narragonia
The Ship of Fools, frontispiece
A fool entering the church with "a hawke on his fyst"

A canon is a priest who's attached to a cathedral. Death stops the canon in front of the church and shows him that time is running out. There are a lot a strange going-ons in Holbein's picture, but to understand it, we'll have to first look at an even older book known as The Ship of Fools.

Das Narrenschiff is a ship full of fools with donkey's ears and bells, who are on their way to "an upside-down world", Narragonia (German "Narr" means fool). Unfortunately the ship doesn't have enough room for all the fools in the world. Therefore there are still many fools in our country, who live as if they were in an upside-down world.

One of the "upside-down" acts would be to bring your hunting falcon (and hunting dogs) along into the church instead of concentrating on God's word. The Fool to the right has uncovered his head and placed the fool's cap on his shoulder, but he doesn't let go of the hunting falcon. The headline is »Gebracht in der kirchen« or in the old English translation: »Of them that make noyses rehersynges of talys and do other thynges vnlaufull and dishonest in ye chirche of god«. A part of the text goes »A fole is he, and hath no mynde deuoute [. . .] Whiche goth in the chirche, [. . .] A hawke on his fyst suche one withouten fayle«.

Apparently, bringing falcons into the church was once very commonplace — even for ecclesiasticals like bishops and abbots. Paul Lacroix (Manners, Customs, and Dress During the Middle Ages, and During the Renaissance Period) informs us about the sport of falconry: »This kind of sport, which had become a most learned and complicated art, was the delight of the nobles of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance period. It was in such esteem that a nobleman or his lady never appeared in public without a hawk on the wrist as a mark of dignity. Even bishops and abbots entered the churches with their hunting birds, which they placed on the steps of the altar itself during the service.«

Holbein: Hunting falcon and Fool
Canon, detail
Deuchar: Hunting falcon and Fool
Canon, detail

Returning to Holbein's woodcut, the first strange going-on we discover, is a man carrying a hunting falcon into the church — just like the fool in Narragonia. The man follows right after the canon, so presumably he's the canon's falconer. In passing, we note, that the canon wears an almuce, a fur-coat adorned with 30-40 tails.

The fool from Narragonia had a fool's cap lying on his shoulder — and so has the falconer, because extremely close-up — half hidden in the shades — follows a fool with donkey's ears and bells. Does it sound probable that a fool would go to his prayers "in his working clothes" with donkey's ears?

It's also striking how similar the fool behind the canon is to the fools from the Ship of Fools — much more than the fool in Holbein's dance of death is.

The Canon is about to crash into the pillars.
Canon, detail

The third strange going-on is that the canon is not on his way into church — as a matter of fact he's about to crash into the door frame and the pillars, when Death stops him (picture to the right).

The interpretation then is that the canon is a fool, who's more occupied with his hunting falcon than with God's word — to such an extent that he's unable to find his way into the church.

Holbein's dance of death alphabet
Initial L

Apparently canons often wore fur cloaks. As already mentioned, the canon on this page wears an almuce lined with animals' tails, and the same is true for Holbein's initial L (picture to the left) and in Basel's dance of death.

In Paris' danse macabre, Death mentions the »a[u]musse grise« (grey almuce) of the canon; in London's dance of death it's translated as »Amys of gris«, and in Copenhagen's dance of death, Death makes a comment on the canon's »grey fur cloak« — presumably a cloak that's furred with grey fur.

Variations: Birckmann pulls the fool out of the shades and replaces the boy (page) with a grownup man; the pillar with figures at the top is removed; the curtain inside the church is removed, so a lot of pillars are visible. Deuchar copies Birckmann.
Scharffenberg removes the falcon, the fool and the boy.

Various Artists

Holbein Proofs (1526)
Holbein Proofs 1526: Canon
Holbein (1538)
Holbein 1538: Canon
Vogtherr (1544)
Vogtherr 1544: Canon
Birckmann (1555)
Birckmann 1555: Canon
Juan de Icíar (1555)
Juan de Icíar 1555: Canon
Scharffenberg (1576)
Scharffenberg 1576: Canon
Straub (1581)
Straub 1581: Canon
Chytraeus (1590)
Chytraeus 1590: Canon
Glissenti (1596)
Glissenti 1596: Canon
Donaueschingen (1600)
Donaueschingen 1600: Canon
Kieser (1617)
Kieser 1617: Canon
Valvasor (1682)
Valvasor 1682: Canon
Mechel (1780)
Mechel 1780: Canon
Deuchar (1788)
Deuchar 1788: Canon
Bewick (1789)
Bewick 1789: Canon
Anderson (1810)
Anderson 1810: Canon
'Mr. Bewick' (1825)
'Mr. Bewick' 1825: Canon
Bechstein (1831)
Bechstein 1831: Canon
Schlotthauer (1832)
Schlotthauer 1832: Canon
Douce (1833)
Douce 1833: Canon
Helmuth (1836)
Helmuth 1836: Canon
Curmer (1858)
Curmer 1858: Canon