t would seem that the preacher is not successful in getting his message through: The woman in the left side of the picture is about to doze off, and the man leans his heads against the pulpit, sleeping soundly. Most other members of the congregation have rather interesting expressions in their face.
Is it a coincidence(1) that the Bible quote above the picture in Scharffenbergs book with the mixture of Holbein and Basel is from Daniel 12? »many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt« (picture to the right).
he picture of the preacher in the pulpit is reminiscent of a woodcut that was used in several booklets in the beginning of the 1500's. To the left is »On Aplas von Rom« (=without indulgences from Rome) from 1518 and to the right is »Beclagung Hanns Schwalb« from 1521. Here too, we see the hooded congregation sitting on their small stools. There's even an hourglass behind the preacher — just like in Holbein's picture.
The preacher stands in the pulpit selling a letter of indulgence, the people at the table to the right are filling out the letters of indulgence, and a churchgoer in the middle of the picture throws the payment into a box. In the middle of the church is a cross with a crown of thorns, but Jesus has left the church. All this godlessness may explain why the congregation in Holbein's picture have such sleepy eyes, wandering glances and even hostile facial expressions.
The little pamphlets were published more or less anonymously, but Heinrich Vogtherr is thought to have cut the frontispiece. In that case, it must have been odd for Vogtherr, when in 1544 he made his copy of Holbein's dance of death and now was copying a copy of his own preacher.
The picture of Death standing behind the preacher is also reminiscent of a preacher in a woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel (picture to the left).
When it comes to the audience, Holbein seems to have found one or two of the women in the Passional of Christ and Antichrist by Martin Luther and Lucas Cranach, i.e. the same work, where Holbein also found the image of the pope(2)
eath is dressed in a stole (long strip of material worn by Catholic ecclesiastics). It's a bit difficult to see what Death holds in his hand.
Some copyists simply leave out this detail, so the hand is empty. This is the solution that Birckmann and Hollar have chosen.
Some artists have interpreted it as a paper-strip with a pseudo-inscription. Georg Scharffenberg (picture to the left) thought the paper strip a convenient place to write his own initials: "G S", whereas Alexander Anderson (picture to the right) has clearly written AMEN.
One of the most popular interpretations is that Death holds a bone, or maybe a jaw-bone, symbolizing that the preacher uses his own jaw too much. Alfred Woltmann (Holbein And His Time, 1872) even states that Death is about to strike the preacher with the bone: »Death is standing behind the orator in the pulpit and is raising a jaw-bone in his hand, to strike him down, even before he has pronounced "amen"«.
Francis Douce writes »Death […] holds in his hand what is not very distinguishable in Hollar's print ; in the original it is evidently a jaw-bone«.
Douce is not correct in stating that the hand is »not very distinguishable in Hollar's print«. As usual Hollar has copied Birckmann, so Hollar shows Death holding his empty hand with the fingers raised. On the other hand Mechel has given Death a large bone in his hand, and the letter-press for Mechel's edition was re-used by Deuchar, Wildridge and "Mr. Bewick". The description of the preacher says »Death, who is behind him with a stole about his neck, holds over his head the bone of a dead body«. This explains why these three copyists have followed the letter-press and equipped Death with a bone — but they have done so in each their fashion, as can be seen here:
In my opinion the most sensible explanation is that of Mischa von Perger, who suggests(3) that the object is a "maniple" (picture to the left).
A maniple is an embroidered strip of fabric of samme colour and breadth as the stole. The priest lets it hang over his forearm close to the wrist. The maniple is not important in itself, but together with the stole, the maniple shows Death as wearing Catholic vestments, which is in line with Holbein's general negative attitude towards the Catholic Church.
Variations: Hollar's hourglass is so indistinct that it's hard to see it.
Deuchar has missed the hourglass, when he copied Hollar.
Deuchar, the unknown English artist and "Mr. Bewick" have all given Death a bone in his hand, as described by the letter-press (which they took from Christian de Mechel). But the position of hand and bone are very different in these latter three variants.
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)