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Dancing with Death

The origins and development of the Dance of Death motif and its representation in graphic art:
the Gemmell Collection at the University of Glasgow Library

Introduction | Origins | Holbein| Imitations | Baroque| Modern | The Soldier

Frontispiece from the Meyers'
Dance of Death (Gemmell 13)

In the 17th Century, depictions of the Dance of Death in book illustration become more elaborate and decorative. As technology advanced, copper engraving offered artists a more sophisticated technique for creating their images in comparison to the earlier cruder wood blocks. Satire was out, and elegance, skill and detail were in. These baroque style illustrations have ornamental influences and are able to provide finely detailed interiors and landscapes.

The Dance of Death theme was therefore taken up for its imaginative possibilities: Holbein "merely provided an artistic stepping stone," according to Collins.




Rudolf and Conrad Meyer's Dance of Death was first published in Zurich in 1650 under the title Sterbenspiegel. It contains sixty engravings. It was begun by Rudolf Meyer, but he died before its completion.

As the plates show, the style and presentation of the Meyers' Dance of Death constitutes a complete departure from Holbein's designs. A point to note is the remarkable characterisation of Death himself. He now appears as a winged figure, bearing a spear. He also seems less skeletal, with flesh and muscle instead of bare bones.

The examples of the Empress and the Emperor (shown below) mirror the settings, poses and scenarios devised by Holbein. But the Meyers' use of metal engravings result in illustrations that are far more elaborate: even the background architecture shows a wealth of detail. The Emperor's scene features a multitude of contemporary subjects and courtiers all depicted in meticulous detail, right down to the dogs in the front left corner.

Overall these scenes offer a greater sense of drama, typical of the baroque style. The artists are clearly interested in the topic for its artistic potential as opposed to its satiric or didactic potential.

Detail  of Death's anatomy (Gemmell 13)

Holbein's Empress (Gemmell 1)

Meyers' Empress, offering a more ostentatious scene. Note
the greater sense of action and alarm in the attendants
(Gemmell 13)

Holbein's Emperor (Gemmell 1)


Meyers' Emperor, holding a more lavish and populated
court  than Holbein's (Gemmell 13)

Rentz's Pope shows vast differences in style to Holbein,
including an extra skeleton, and angels (SM 1655)

Detail from Rentz's engraving

Another set of illustrations that employs this more elaborate style of engraving are those by Michael Rentz in the 1753 publication Geistliche Todts-Gedancken. Again, Rentz uses the original premise of Holbein's designs but imposes them onto richly detailed backgrounds - frequently, with lavish interiors. In the image of the Pope (shown above), Rentz creates a sense of mysticism, with the dark shadows and swirling incense. This time, two figures of Death have arrived to claim the Pope.

Holbein's sailors anticipate their approaching shipwreck
(Gemmell 1)

Rentz's shipwreck is in a more advanced state of destruction as
the mighty prow of the ship rises out of the sea and crew
 members are washed out to sea (SM 1655)

Above (to the left) is the original design of Holbein's sailors, as Death boards their ship to drag them beneath the waves. To the right is Rentz's version. Side by side the variance in style is striking. Not only does Rentz devise a completely new scene imaging the shipwreck and ensuing carnage, but he depicts the detail of the boat dashed on the rocks, and the survivors attacked by Death.

Go to next section: Modern satire and the Dance of Death