The Preacher

Holbein Proofs, Preacher
Sleep well.
Preacher, detail
Scharffenberg. The preacher in Basel reads from Daniel 12:
»Viel auß den, die im Staub der Erden Schlafen, die sollen wieder werden Erwachen«
Scharffenberg, Preacher

I 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).

Inspiration for the scene

On Aplas von Rom kan man wol selig werden, durch anzaigung der götlichen hailigen geschryfft (1518)
On Aplas von Rom
Beclagung aines leyens genant Hanns schwalb über vil mißbreüch Christliches lebens, vnd darinn begriffen kürzlich von Johannes Hußsen (1521)
Beclagung aines leyens genant Hanns schwalb

T 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.

Schedel's Chronicle, preacher
Schedel, detail
Lucas Cranach
Lucas Cranach, detail

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)

What is Death holding in his hand?

Original Holbein. Paper-tape with pseudo-inscription?
Preacher, detail

D 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.

Georg Scharffenberg has written his initials.
Preacher, detail
Alexander Anderson: "AMEN"
Preacher, detail

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:

Birckmann: Empty hands;
visible hourglass
Birckmann: detail
Hollar: Empty hands;
indistinct hourglass
Hollar: detail
Hollar 1816: Empty hands;
very indistinct hourglass
Hollar 1816: Detail
Deuchar: A little bone;
no hourglass
Deuchar: detail
Unknown artist: A little bone;
very indistinct hourglass
Tindall Wildridge: detail
"Mr. Bewick": Large bone
Mr. Bewick: Detail

The maniple

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.

Various Artists

Holbein Proofs (1526)
Holbein Proofs 1526: Preacher
Holbein (1538)
Holbein 1538: Preacher
Vogtherr (1544)
Vogtherr 1544: Preacher
Birckmann (1555)
Birckmann 1555: Preacher
Juan de Icíar (1555)
Juan de Icíar 1555: Preacher
Melantrich (1563)
Melantrich 1563: Preacher
Scharffenberg (1576)
Scharffenberg 1576: Preacher
Straub (1581)
Straub 1581: Preacher
Chytraeus (1590)
Chytraeus 1590: Preacher
Kieser (1617)
Kieser 1617: Preacher
Meyer (1650)
Meyer 1650: Preacher
Hollar (1651)
Hollar 1651: Preacher
Thomas Neale (1657)
Thomas Neale 1657: Preacher
Valvasor (1682)
Valvasor 1682: Preacher
Mechel (1780)
Mechel 1780: Preacher
Deuchar (1788)
Deuchar 1788: Preacher
Bewick (1789)
Bewick 1789: Preacher
Anderson (1810)
Anderson 1810: Preacher
Bechstein (1831)
Bechstein 1831: Preacher
Schlotthauer (1832)
Schlotthauer 1832: Preacher
Douce (1833)
Douce 1833: Preacher
Curmer (1858)
Curmer 1858: Preacher
Wildridge (1887)
Wildridge 1887: Preacher
Deuchar (1887)
Deuchar 1887: Preacher

Footnotes: (1) (2) (3)

Is it a coincidence?. . . : Yes, it is. But it's a rather amusing coincidence.
This observation is made by Stephanie Buck in "Die Jahre in Basel 1515-1532", München (2006).
In private correspondence.