Bones of All Men

© The Trustees of the British Museum
Mouse over to remove letter Copyleft JMJ
Basel's Dance of death, the ossuary.
Basel's Dance of death, the ossuary
Mouse over for animation Copyleft by JMJ

The dance is introduced with drums and trumpets. It's not hard to see where Holbein found the inspiration - since he lived in Basel at the time, and both of Basel's dances of death start in a similar way (picture to the left).

In Holbein's picture as well as in Basel's dances of death, one Death is beating the drum and blowing a fife, while the other Death plays the horn. In the background lots of skulls are piled up.

This gives us a way of proving that Holbein's dance of death alphabet is older than his great dance of death: The alphabet is much closer to its model (Basel's dance of death) than the latter is (see picture below to the right).

The accompanying text for this letter goes: »Wie sy all sterben in Adam also ouch inn Christo werden sy all lebendig gemacht / We / we / we / denen die do wonen vff der erden.«

Holbein's dance of death, The Bones of All Men.
Holbein Proofs, Ossuary

The first part is 1st Corinthians 15,22, which in Luther's translation goes: »Denn wie sie in Adam alle sterben, so werden sie in Christus alle lebendig gemacht werden«. In English is goes like this: »For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive«. This is where St. Paul introduces his new invention: The Original Sin.

Copy by Hollar
Hollar (Alphabet), Hollar: A

The second part is from the Revelation 8:13, which Luther translates thus: »[...] Weh, weh, weh denen, die auf Erden wohnen [...]«. In English: »And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!«. This quote was also used in the dance of death (picture to the right).

To the left is a copy designed by Hollar.

Various artists

Holbein Alphabet (1524)
Holbein Alphabet 1524: Holbein: A
Wolfgang Köpphel (1526)
Wolfgang Köpphel 1526: Köpfel: A
Tęs Kainęs Diathękęs (1531)
Tęs Kainęs Diathękęs 1531: Kainês Diathêkês: A
Florentini Medici (1532)
Florentini Medici 1532: Florentini Medici: A
Froschauer (1535)
Froschauer 1535: Ossuary
Hans Schott (1536)
Hans Schott 1536: Schott: A
Hans Schott (1536)
Hans Schott 1536: Schott: A
Augsburg (1536)
Augsburg 1536: Ulhart A
 1537: Landsknecht: A
Hans Schott (1537)
Hans Schott 1537: Kreüterbuch: A
Hans Schott (1537)
Hans Schott 1537: Kreüterbuch: A
Diverse (1537)
Diverse 1537: Landsknecht: A
Hans Schott (1540)
Hans Schott 1540: Alchoran: E + A
Froschauer (1543)
Froschauer 1543: Stobaiou: A
Hans Schott (1545)
Hans Schott 1545: Dennmaerckische: A
Froschauer (1547)
Froschauer 1547: Novum Testamentum: A
Hollar Alphabet (1651?)
Hollar Alphabet 1651?: Hollar: A
Heinrich Lödel (1849)
Heinrich Lödel 1849: Lödel: A
Douce Alphabet (1858)
Douce Alphabet 1858: Douce: A