Lübeck's Dance of Death

Thomas King

Pope and emperor
King, King #1

Thomas Henry King (1822-1892) lived in Bruges / Brügge from 1849 till 1858 — i.e. he moved at more or less the same time he published »The study-book of mediæval architecture and art«. This is probably the reason the ten plates are marked »T. H. King. Archt. Bruges« and »London Bell & Daldy 1858«.

In this four-volume work King goes through a number of cities in northern Germany / Holland / Belgium with copious illustrations. King dedicates 53 plates to Lübeck — 10 of which are for the dance of death. Unfortunately he doesn't tell us what his drawings are based on. He doesn't seem to have copied any of the other publications, and the simple fact that he divides the dance into 10 parts instead of 8, might indicate that he has made an original work.

On the other hand he includes the duke, which had been removed from the painting in 1799, and which King could hardly have found anywhere else than in Suhl's work.

Last plate: Young man, maid and baby
King, King #10

Judging from the titles it appears that King has used Schmidt's books (see this table). To begin with we note that when King writes "Der Kaiserin", he can't have been very proficient in German and so he must have copied the titles from somewhere. It turns out that every single dancer right from the "Flötenbläser" are spelled in exactly the same way by King as in Schmidt's books (for instance the empress in other books is spelled "Kayserin" (Suhl), "Keyserin" (Milde), "Kaiserinn" (Schlott 1701), "Käyserin" (Schlott 1702) and "Käyserinn" (von Melle 1713). One deviation which in itself is revealing is the tender infant: "Das Wiegenkinde". Here King must have copied Schmidt's "Der Tod zum Wiegenkinde" without considering that the final "e" indicates the dative case. It is revealing that the only other author in the whole world that makes the same error and writes "Das Wiegenkinde", is another Englishman, namely Tindall Wildridge in the preface to his copies of Holbein's dance of death.

Milde: The last plate shows Lübeck from the west in the background
Lübeck fra vest

Considering that King was an architect, he has paid a surprisingly small effort to the buildings in the background. On the last plate (picture to the right), we are supposed to see Lübeck from the west, but this detail has been omitted (compare with Milde to the left). The little group between the physician and the usurer has been omitted as well (see Milde again).

King doesn't write much about the dance in Lübeck, but instead gives a general introduction to the genre, which is repeated here:

The Dance of Death, painted on panels and affixed to the walls of a Chapel on the north side of the Church, is one of those singular representations, the origin of which has given so much rise to speculation among archæologists. The oldest of which we have any notice does not date further than the fourteenth century, and it is not unlikely that a suggestion, which attributes its introduction to the pestilence which ravaged successively the cities of Europe about 1350(1), may have some foundation.


The example once set seems to have been followed quickly, and in the fifteenth century we have notice of the existence of numerous Dances of Death, of greater or less importance. One at the cemetery of the Innocents of Paris was painted in 1424; at Dijon by Masonelle, in 1436. Merian engraved one at Frankfort in 1649, which existed in 1441 in the cemetery of the Dominicans at Basle. There were also Dances of Death at St. Paul's in London, at Minden, Amiens, Leipsic, Dresden, Meissen, Anneberg, Berlin,(2) Vienna, Nuremberg, and at the Augustinian Convent at Erfurth. One at Chaise-Dieu, in Auvergne, yet exists. The remains of one are at St. Maclou, Rouen. The finest, however, which exist to this day, are at Pisa, in the cloisters which surround the cemetery; and recently, if not still, in the roof of the old bridge at Berne, Switzerland.


Simon Vostre, the celebrated printer, introduced the subject in the margin of many of his books; one, as early as 1502, is well known.(3)


Holbein left one in portfolio, now in the possession of the Emperor of Russia;(4) but that at Basle, and the one in the Marienkirche, which we have delinated in Plates 33 to 42, were wrongly attributed to him, having been executed in 1463; whereas he was born only in 1495. These representations, however edifying at the time of their execution, hardly possess any interest for us beyond that which attaches to the costumes, which are faithfully figured, of the periods. The clock behind the high altar dates from 1405.

King #1
King : King #1
King #2
King : King #2
King #3
King : King #3
King #4
King : King #4
King #5
King : King #5
King #6
King : King #6
King #7
King : King #7
King #8
King : King #8
King #9
King : King #9
King #10
King : King #10


Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)

The year 1350 is an exaggeration. The oldest dance of death was probably the one in Paris from 1425. For a long time it was thought that the dance in Klein-Basel was from 1312 because of a misreading.
It is interesting that King mentions the dance in Berlin 2-3 years before it was rediscovered. Unfortunately King doesn't tell us his source of information.
These woodcuts by Simon Vostre are those that adorn the left margin of every page on the present site.

Read much more about Simon Vostre.

This portfolio later turned out to be a copy executed by a very young Peter Paul Rubens. See the pages about Rubens and about Christian von Mechel for details.