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.

Monday, February 20, 2012 by Amy Clarkson · 2

Friday, February 3, 2012

Elderly Animals

by Elliot Bennett
A couple  months back a friend of mine posted a link on her Facebook page while she was caring for an aging furry friend. The photos and the movie about the photographer, Isa Leshko, and her work is called "Elderly Animals." For me, the eyes of her subjects reflected the profound strength and frailty that paradoxically coexist in humans and other animals. The images are powerful and honest, and were a way the artist explored her feelings after caring for her mother with Alzheimer's disease. Here is an excerpt from her statement about the project on her website.

"I am creating these photographs to gain a deeper understanding about what it means to be mortal and to exorcise my fears of aging. I have come to realize that these images are self-portraits, or at the very least, they are manifestations of my fears and hopes about what I will be like when I am old. My intention is to take an honest and unflinching look at old age and I want these images to inspire others to become aware of and to engage with their own attitudes toward aging and mortality." - Isa Leshko


Both the photos and the movie about Isa are worth a look.


Friday, February 3, 2012 by Holly Yang, MD · 0