ans Holbein was incredibly productive. Together with his brother, Ambrosius, he created 2,000 initials in wood and metal in Basel.(1) His production falls in three parts that reflects his stays in that town: in 1516, end of 1519-1526 and in 1529 - 1531.
Holbein's dance of death alphabet was first used in August 1524 (picture to the right). The letters are quite small (2.5 x 2.5 cm), but incredibly detailed. The woodcutter was Hans Lützelburger (= Hans/John from Luxembourg), and we know this because his woodcutter's mark (picture to the left) appear on some of the sheets that were printed along with the alphabet.
Precisely these printed sheets underline another thing that makes these initials very special: The 24 initials are not just 24 pieces of decoration; they form a unit. The alphabet starts with Bones of All Men like the dance of death in Basel. Then comes the entire society, starting with the mighty pope and emperor and (especially in the beginning) following a strict hierarchy. At the end of the dance comes the hermit who has left society behind him, the criminal gamblers and finally the weakest of them all: The child in the cradle. The series ends with resurrection and Judgment Day.
The printed sheets shows this even clearer. The series is introduced by a Bible quote about the inexplicabilities of the human life, then comes a quote for each scene, and it's all rounded off with a quote from Isaiah about how all flesh is grass (or hay) and that only the word of the Lord lasts eternally.
As always with Roman majuscules there are 24 letters. Click on each letter for details.
he text at the top goes: »Drey ding sind mir schwer / vnd das vierd weyß ich gar nit. Den weg eins adlers im luft / Den weg einer waldschlangen vff dem felsen / Den weg eines schiffs in mittem meer / Den weg eins mans inn der iugent«.
This is from Proverbs 30:18-19, which the King James Bible translates: »There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid«.
The problem is that these German verses are translated from the latin Vulgate (which builds on the Greek Septuagint), while modern Protestant Bibles are based on the Hebrew text. These two texts are not identical and that's why Catholic Bibles like the Douay-Rheims Bible speak about a man's way in his youth.: »the way of a man in youth«, while Protestant Bibles like the King James Bible speak about a man's way »with a maid«.
The interpretation of the Vulgate is rather straightforward: The subject is puzzlement. The eagle in the air (why doesn't it fall down?), the serpent upon a rock (how does it walk without legs?), the ship in the sea (why doesn't it sink?) and the man in his youth (whither dost thou wander?). The answer to these bewildering questions are supplied by Isaiah in the quote at the bottom of the sheet: Only the word of our God shall stand for ever.
The Protestant Bibles on the other hand, open up for another interpretation that is more vulgar than the Vulgate. The three things: eagle, serpent and ship share the attribute that they don't leave any trace, and neither does a visit to a young woman. This interpretation is very common today(2) and also explains why the next verse concludes that "Such is the way of an adulterous woman": »Such is the way of an adulterous woman; she eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness« (Proverbs 30:20).
Unfortunately the latter interpretation destroys the connection with the conclusion at the bottom of the sheet, which sounds: »Alles fleysch ist heuw / vnd all synn glory / wie die blum des ackers. Das heuw ist außgedort / vnd die blum ist gefallen / wann der geyst des herren hat inn sy geblasen. Das volck ist warlich heuw. Das heuw ist außgedort / vnd die blum ist gefallen Aber das wort des herren bleybt in ewigkeit«.
This is from Isaiah 40:6-8: »The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever"«. It's because of quotes like this that Death is often portrayed with a scythe.
Footnotes: (1) (2)
»Gemeinsam mit seinem Bruder Ambrosius schuf er, als in Basel die Reformation begann,
kirchliche Aufträge ausblieben und dies die beiden Brüder arbeitslos machte, etwa 2000 Initialen in Holz- oder Metallschnitt«.
(Marion Janzin: Das Buch vom Buch: 5000 Jahre Buchgeschichte, page 194)
Ambrosius died ca. 1519, so the greater part of the 2,000 initials must have been designed by Hans.
A great number of Bible commentaries confirm this interpretation:
»the four now mentioned agree in this, that they leave no trace behind them«.
(Barnes' Notes on the Bible)
»The wonder in Agur's eyes seems to be that none of the four leave any trace behind them.«
(Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers)
»There be three things too wonderful for me - The way whereof I cannot trace; the way of an eagle in the air - Either, 1st,
The manner of her flight, which is exceedingly high, swift, and strong: or, rather, 2d,
The way, or part of the air through which she passes, without leaving any print or sign in it.
The way of a serpent upon a rock - Where it leaves no impression, nor slime, nor token which way it went.
The way of a ship in the sea - In which, though at present it make a furrow, yet it is speedily closed again;«
»Hypocrisy is illustrated by four examples of the concealment of all methods or traces of action, and a pertinent example of double dealing in actual vice is added, that is, the adulterous woman.«
(Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary)
»The way whereof I cannot trace or find out«.
(Matthew Poole's Commentary)