Lübeck's Dance of Death

Wilhelm Mantels (1816 - 1879)

Merchant with spurs or craftsman?
Merchant or craftsman?
Wilhelm Mantels
Wilhelm Mantels

Friedrich Wilhelm Mantels (17/6 1816 - 8/6 1879) was the leader of Lübeck's library, a grammar school teacher and a historian. He was married to Maria Louise Henriette Nölting - a daughter of the family where his friend Carl Julius Milde lived.

In 1866 he published Der Todtentanz in der Marienkirche zu Lübeck. Here he laid the ground for much of the later research into the dance of death in Lübeck. Included in the book were Carl Julius Milde's handsome lithographs.

Mantels was the first to point out that Jacob von Melle had written down the text in a wrong order. In one case Death tells the debauched nobleman that he shall receive great wages for his work. Apparently the nobleman had been interchanged with the mayor - both in the painting and in the text.

In the other place the merchant speaks about "my handicraft". Here the merchant and the craftsman have traded places - but only in the text - the picture of the craftsman still shows a merchant with spurs (picture to the left).

Mantels arranged the text in a more sensible way as described on the page about Jacob von Melle. But Mantels also wanted to explain how the verses could have become so jumbled.

The Wood Table Hypothesis

Mantels suggested that the original dance of death from 1463 had been painted on wood tables - with 1 human and 1 Death per table. These tables could have shuffled when the painting was copied in 1701.

In many books and even on the Internet the "fact" still pops up — that the original painting had been painted on wood tables — but the truth is that it was only a hypothesis and the hypothesis was false:

Lübeck in the background of the dance
St. Mary's Church, 1463

Mantels himself gave the deathblow to his hypothesis only 7 years later: It turned out that Wortmann's copy had been mounted in the same frame as the original painting, and Mantels himself had an opportunity to feel the remnant of the old canvas under the new one - which proved that the old painting had been cut out.(1)

Unfortunately Mantels didn't want to give up his wood plate theory, and he speculated over, when this change could have happened (if not in 1701). He pointed out that according to the church records there had been an earlier restoration in 1588 where a good deal of canvas had been used — not enough for replacing the entire painting, but maybe it was only a part of the painting that had been replaced? This would also explain why Jacob von Melle had only been able to read 4 lines of the text from the first half of the painting, but in contrast could read most of the second half.

It was these idle speculations about partial replacements combined with med Mantels' words about the painting being cut out that were later used by Heise for his crackpot hypothesis: That the fragment in Tallinn was a surviving remnant of Lübeck's original painting from 1463.

A Modern Explanation

Today it is thought that the change was introduced deliberately at the time the painting was replaced in 1701. The explanation which can be read in Hartmut Freytag's "Der Totentanz der Marienkirche in Lübeck und der Nikolaikirche in Reval (Tallinn)" is as follows:

The nobleman and the mayor: In the old painting (from 1463) the nobleman came before the mayor, so that all the lay people up to and including the nobleman were nobility (living outside Lübeck) while the rest of the lay people, starting with the mayor, were citizens of Lübeck.

In 1701 the powerful plutocrats in the free city of Lübeck regarded themselves as noblemen and their leader, the mayor, would naturally outrank an ordinary nobleman. As a consequence the mayor and the nobleman were exchanged on the new painting.

The merchant and the craftsman: In Low German a craftsman is "Amtman", and in 1463 the rich merchant came before the poor craftsman.

In 1701 the powerful plutocrats in Lübeck regarded themselves as nobility and no longer identified with the traveling merchant, who as a lowly peddler had to travel »To Lande unde tor See« in all kinds of weather, »Dor Wind, Regen unde Snee«. At the same time there was a misunderstanding because the High German word "Amtmann" means civil servant. In order to keep the ranking order, the "civil servant" was now placed before the traveling peddler.

When Jacob von Melle published his notes in 1713, he was so influenced by the new painting (which was now 12 years old) that he rearranged his notes to follow the same new sequence. To complete the confusion he also copied the headings from the new painting.


Further information

Footnotes: (1)

Mantels wrote in Anzeiger für Kunde der deutschen Vorzeit p. 158:

Aber auch meine bisherige Annahme, dass das Bild vor 1701 auf Holz gemalt gewesen sei, hat sich nicht stichhaltig erwiesen.

Ich fand nämlich unter der von oben her das Bild in seinem ganzen Umlauf begrenzenden, wulstartigen Holzkrönung alte Leinwandreste hervorragend, welche namentlich an der Westseite ununterbrochen fortlaufen, Farbenspuren tragen und den deutlichen Beweis liefern, daß das vorige Leinwandbild herausgeschnitten ist, um es zu entfernen, und wohl auch, um vom Maler bequemer copiert werden zu können.

Up to the old text from 1463