Monday, February 20, 2012

The Dance of Death (1538)

I don't really mean to be on a skeleton kick... but was exploring this very old work done by Hans Holbein the Younger in the 1500's, and thought I'd share it.

Holbein, a German artist, was really known in the 16th century as one of the great portraitists of his time. Many of his portraits, such as of Sir Thomas More and Henry VIII are housed in the great museums of the world.

However, at least initially in his career, much of his money was made doing religious commissions. These works were often done as woodcuts for easy reproducible printing. The work I found interesting was his "The Dance of Death" published in 1538.

Experts agree the engravings were done 12 years earlier in 1526, which was very close to the reformation and peasants' rebellions of 1524.  These events are reflected in the thematic elements of justice in his work, as well as the top down approach of death's activities.  The message is very clear; summed up in the words from the book, "De la Necessite de la Mort qui ne laisse riens estre pardurable" translated "The necessity of death leaves nothing and is eternal". Another way of saying this is, no one will escape death.

The book consists of a series of 41 woodcuts depicting death as a skeleton robbing people of life in the midst of every day activities.  The first 4 woodcuts are regarding Adam and Eve, as if to provide the foundation of death itself. Then symbolically all people are included, starting from the most powerful (the Pope) to the lowliest (a child). Accompanying each etching are Latin quotes based on scripture.


I enjoyed scrolling through the images as they provide a glimpse of societal structure at the time.  There are duchesses, emperors, attorneys, doctors, senators, clergy, etc. Holbein is known for his symbolism as well as sarcasm, so many of the pictures depict this. For instance the nun is caught with a lover, as death extinguishes the religious candle. The doctor is depicted with death having brought him a dying patient, as if to mock the doctor's attempts at staving off death.

Besides this rich body of work, there was a version of this dance of death done as an alphabet by Holbein in 1526 but not published until 1538.  The same characters from the book are depicted with letters of the alphabet. Wouldn't this be a nice children's learning tool?

Take some time to scroll through the work in entirety on the Project Gutenberg site.  This other web site has the alphabet and contrasts each letter to the referenced Dance of Death book image.

2 Responses to “The Dance of Death (1538)”

Mary Carlile said...
September 20, 2014 at 10:26 AM

Do you have a piece of fabricwith the dance of death letter C on it


Christian Sinclair said...
September 20, 2014 at 10:28 AM

No. Sorry.