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)
AC (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 of The Escutcheon of Death
was also used for the frontispiece of
Variations: The idea of a dextrarum iunctio is wasted on most of the copyists —
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.