The Escutcheon of Death
Holbein Proofs, Escutcheon

The Escutcheon of Death

The escutcheon of Death by Albrecht Dürer
The escutcheon of Death by Albrecht Dürer
Grave stele from 400 BC.
Grave stele

T he first edition of Les Simulachres & historiees from 1538 ended with The Escutcheon of Death. Holbein was far from the first, who designed an allegorical coat of arms for Death — the picture to the left is an example by Albrecht Dürer.

The shield itself is cracked and a snake crawls out of Death's mouth. Two skeletal arms are holding a stone up, so it doesn't break the hourglass (alternatively, the arms are about to throw the stone at the reader).

The Bible quote that accompanies this last image is »Memorare nouissima, & in æternum non peccabis« This is a quote from the Wisdom of Syrach (Ecclesiasticus) 7:36, which in full goes: »in omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua et in æternum non peccabis« in Latin. In English it's: »Whatsoever thou takest in hand, remember the end, and thou shalt never do amiss.«.

For millennia it has been customary to portray married couples on tombstones, giving each other their hand as a sign of eternal fidelity (image to the right). The handshake (dextrarum iunctio) in antiquity was a part of the wedding rite and must be given with the right hand, which has been consecrated to Fides, the deity of faithfulness. In Holbein's picture, both persons are extending their right hand towards each others, but their hands don't meet.

Juno Pronuba blesses the marriage (160-180 AD)
Juno Pronuba blesses the marriage
AC (Allaert Claesz) 1562
Allaert Claesz 1562

To the left is the lid from a Roman sarcophagus from 160-180 AD, where the goddess Juno gives her blessing to the newly married couple.

Allaert Claesz (picture to the right), has added a macabre twist. In his work it's Death, who embraces the couple and gives them his "blessing". Just like in Holbein's picture, we've got a married couple holding hands in a dextrarum iunctio, while Death is in the center.

The two people are reminiscent of Holbein's newly married couple. On that picture, the Bible quote was »Me & thee. Ought but death part thee and me« (freely after the Book of Ruth 1:17). The two lovers are literally separated by the escutcheon of Death.

The picture with two humans being separated by a skull in the center is also reminiscent of Holbein's famous painting of the ambassadors and the anamorphic skull.

The picture of The Escutcheon of Death was also used for the frontispiece of Eberhard Kieser.
Icones Mortis Sexaginta, 1623

Variations: The idea of a dextrarum iunctio is wasted on most of the copyists — especially on Vogtherr, who as usually mirror-inverts the image, thus making the people extend their left hands. One of the problems is that Holbein's original woodcut is quite fuzzy, so the individual copyists has had to guess what they were copying.
Vogtherr, Eberhard Kieser and Bechstein let the back of the hand of the man strike the shield.
Birckmann lets the man show both hands (and turn his head away from the woman), and as usually Birckmann is copied by Hollar and Deuchar.
The fake Rubens and Bewick has totally given up drawing the man's arm.

Various Artists

Holbein Proofs (1526)
Holbein Proofs 1526: Escutcheon
Holbein (1538)
Holbein 1538: The escutcheon
Vogtherr (1544)
Vogtherr 1544: The escutcheon
Albulanus (1550)
Albulanus 1550: Albulanus
Birckmann (1555)
Birckmann 1555: The escutcheon
Wagner (1557)
Wagner 1557: The escutcheon
Straub (1581)
Straub 1581: The escutcheon
Chytraeus (1590)
Chytraeus 1590: The escutcheon
Rubens (1590)
Rubens 1590: The escutcheon
Glissenti (1596)
Glissenti 1596: The escutcheon
Kieser (1617)
Kieser 1617: The escutcheon
Hollar (1651)
Hollar 1651: Escutcheon
Valvasor (1682)
Valvasor 1682: The escutcheon
Deuchar (1788)
Deuchar 1788: The escutcheon
Bewick (1789)
Bewick 1789: The escutcheon
Pseudo-Bewick (1825)
Pseudo-Bewick 1825: The escutcheon
Bechstein (1831)
Bechstein 1831: The escutcheon
Schlotthauer (1832)
Schlotthauer 1832: The escutcheon
Douce (1833)
Douce 1833: The escutcheon
Leon le Maire (1856)
Leon le Maire 1856: Escutcheon
Curmer (1858)
Curmer 1858: The escutcheon

Up to Holbein's great dance of death