The Dance of Death by Hans HolbeinHans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543), remembered today for his insightful portraits, was better known in his own time for his varied and extensive graphic works, the most celebrated of which was The Dance of Death. This work, from the woodblocks of collaborator Hans Lützelburger, was first published in book form in 1538.
The theme of the dance of death was a popular one of the sixteenth century. Holbein captured the feeling of death, the leveler, in its attack on all classes, both sexes, and all ages. A stylized skeleton seizes the child from his mothers breast. The skeleton snatches, plays, tugs, and cavorts throughout the rest of the book. The king, emperor, pope, and cardinal must cease from their functions. The skull is thrust into the face of the astrologer. The hourglass runs out onto the floor. Countess, nun, sailor, peddler, senator are all stopped by the common force. Forty-one finely cut, highly detailed woodcuts capture the single motif, Memento mori: Remember, you will die. Although the theme is common, the variety of expressions, social groups, backgrounds, styles of dress and architecture, and calls to death are so varied that each one is unique in its power.
This edition, reprinting the unabridged 1538 edition, is the first in a series reprinting great rare books from the Rosenwald Collection. Besides the woodcuts, the book contains a prefatory letter by Jean de Vauzéle and various quotations, depictions, and meditations on death, deaths of men, and the necessity of death. A repeated series of the 41 woodblocks follows the reprinted work and contains English translations of the quotations and verses. Art historians and social historians will find this to be one of the best depictions of class life caught at its fateful moment. The collector will find this to be the finest reproduction of one of Holbeins major works.
Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death (1523–5)
He moved to Basel Switzerland in where he acquired fame from his woodcuts. In he moved to England where he became known for his realistic portraits. Holbein died October from the plague. The dance of death alphabet was used in books as early as August , but for unknown reasons — presumably because of the religious and social criticism — twelve years passed before Holbein's great dance of death was published in book form. Most of these prints only include 40 woodcuts with the astrologer missing.
Holbein drew the woodcuts between and , while in his twenties and based in the Swiss town of Basel. It would be another decade before he established himself in England, where he painted his most enduring masterpiece The Ambassadors , in which two wealthy, powerful and worldly young men stand above and oblivious to an anamorphic skull that signals the ultimate vanity of all that wealth, power and worldliness. In the s, Holbein was busy trying to earn a living in Basel, painting murals and portraits, designing stained glass windows, and illustrating books. So Holbein was working close to the heart of the accelerating movement for Church reform. It comes as little surprise, then, that Death reserves particularly grim treatment for members of the Catholic clergy. It drags off a fat abbot by his cassock, leads an abbess away by the habit as though she were an animal, and takes the form of two skeletons and two demons to see to the pope himself. Death had first been seen dancing in Europe in , on a mural at the Paris Cemetery of the Holy Innocents.
Holbein's Sources and Inspiration
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work. Then follow the cuts, forty-one in number, each having its text from the Latin Bible above it, and below, its quatrain in French, this latter being understood to be from the pen of one Gilles Corozet. To the cuts succeed various makeweight Appendices of a didactic and hortatory character, the whole being wound up by a profitable discourse, De la Necessite de la Mort qui ne laisse riens estre pardurable. There were subsequent issues in , , , , and To the issues of and a few supplementary designs were added, some of which have no special bearing upon the general theme, although attempts, more or less ingenious, have been made to connect them with the text.
The Dance of Death was composed by Hans Holbein the Younger between and ; the woodcuts were eventually collected in book form in by the Trechsel brothers, who had hitherto specialised in expensive works in Latin — so there was already a precedent, of considerable vintage, for this book of illustrations to be released by a publisher of classic texts, even before Penguin Classics took it on. Holbein was working in Basle at the time — as was the Swiss reformation. But it is the woodcuts of death — and the accompanying Alphabet of Death — to which we turn. Holbein, as anyone who knows his great portrait The Ambassadors which itself famously includes a large, anamorphic skull will recall, was a great realistic painter, capable of photographic accuracy when depicting the human form, so it is a slight surprise to see these rather more stylised portraits. That said, you can quite easily read the expressions and the characters of the people being yanked away by Death or, in the case of the poor, exploited ploughman, gently led away, and even, it seems, helped along in his ploughing , and if you miss them there is enough detail and symbolism to help you. Not unless you are Death yourself, here shown popping up between the senator and the wealthy merchant he is listening to while ignoring the beggar trying in vain to get his attention. The underlying message of the series is, of course, that Death comes for us all, and if it interrupts the recreations of the wealthy rather more insolently than those of the poor, then let that be a lesson to us.
This is one of a celebrated series of small woodcuts that Holbein designed on the theme of Death. Members of society are mostly portrayed in a situation designed to criticise a specific type of behaviour "such as the corruption of the judge, the vanity of the canon, the acquisitiveness of the rich man and the merchant". The series adapts the tradition of the medieval Danse Macabre Dance of Death as the basis for a new and original sequence. It also relates to the imagery of French illuminated Books of Hours and poetical traditions. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus years or fewer. You must also include a United States public domain tag to indicate why this work is in the public domain in the United States.