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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

Hollar's engraved portrait of
Holbein (Gemmell 15)

The most famous, and original, incarnation of the Dance of Death in book illustration is found in Hans Holbein's Les Simulachres & historiees faces de la Mort.

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) was a German artist and printmaker. He spent much of his career working on themes of religious suffering, but is also well-known for his painting The Ambassadors, in which an image of a skull is hidden in anamorphic perspective offering an almost subliminal memento mori message. Holbein also spent part of his career in England and was portrait painter for Henry VIII. Yet his most famous work, and the one which made his name, remains the Dance of Death.

Holbein's work is therefore the starting point for our exploration of the illustrated Dance.


The origins of Holbein's Dance of Death illustrations remain something of a mystery. Holbein produced the designs whilst working and living in Basel, a Swiss town with two important Dance of Death murals. They were originally completed 12 years prior to their first publication in 1538. An alphabet with decorative initials incorporating preliminary studies for his Dance of Death were also completed in 1524. These works were non-commissioned - perhaps the reason that Holbein felt free to indulge in satire and commentary, according to Collins.

The woodblocks created from Holbein's designs are now commonly attributed to Hans Lutzelberger (1495?-1526), a skilled woodcutter who brought Holbein's work to life. Lutzelberger's death in 1526 possibly left the original Dance of Death series incomplete. It was not until his heirs later sold the finished blocks to creditors that they ended up at the Treschel printing firm in Lyons and were first published as Les Simulachres & historiees faces de la Mort, autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées. Holbein is not credited in the work at all.

Blown up from small letterhead; Loedel's
engravings reproducing Holbein's original
Dance of Death alphabet (Gemmell 40)

Holbein's depiction of Adam and the creation of
Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gemmell 1)

The original work consisted of 41 small woodcuts (65x50 mm in size). The sequence begins with religious scenes of Adam and Eve being cast from the Garden of Eden and the arrival of Death. From here, a series of scenes follow in which various victims meet Death.

The images were incredibly popular, and further editions quickly followed. These featured additional blocks, believed to be half-finished. The work was also soon translated into Italian and Latin from the original French.

The Special Collections copy (Gemmell 1) is a later edition from 1549; although published in Lyon, it features the Italian translation of the text. It has additional blocks, bringing the total number of images up to 53.

Holbein's designs mark a departure from the original conception of the Dance. He presents individual scenes of each victim rather than the rational round dance of death and the dying. Holbein's great skill is evident in his ability to inject interest and variety into the scenes. There is great creativity in the depiction of different landscapes and interiors, avoiding monotonous repetition. His Dance of Death is rightfully hailed as a monumental achievement.


Each scene bears the same basic elements: Death enters surprising his victim and we clearly see the reaction of the victim. In every scene, the motif of the hourglass is present to signal the approaching end.

Detail showing
Death's hourglass

Holbein retains the formula of presenting victims from a multitude of social positions - from those at the top of the social scale, such as the king (to the right), down to those low of status. Frequently his images pass judgement on those at the higher end of the patriarchy who choose to abuse the power their status accords them; he even goes so far as to portray real life figures. According to Gundersheimer, for example, the king shown here is "clearly a portrait of Francis I", King of France (1515-1547) - France's first Renaissance monarch. The fleur-de-lys motif behind the table represents the French monarchy and the barett the king wears points to Francis I. The King enjoys food, drink and a life of excess as Death approaches the table in the guise of a plate bearer, ready to pluck the king from his comfortable life. 

Illustration of the King and Death (Gemmell 1)

Illustration of the Monk or Mendicant Friar (Gemmell 1)

In the illustration of the mendicant monk shown here, Holbein levies his critical judgement at a member of the clergy. The monk receives a particularly vicious reception, with Holbein presenting him as a mercenary individual who desperately attempts to shield his alms box as Death surprises him. This is a terrifying death, where an aggressive and taunting Death physically claims his victim, dragging him to his end. The flowing garments combined with the curling smoke creates a sense of panicked movement emphasised by the look of horror on the monk's face. The curlicue in the background represents a distinctive trademark of Holbein's and is part of his unique skill.

The characterisation of Death is particularly fascinating. Although not anatomically correct (although, as Barnes points out, few of Holbein's contemporary reader's would have been aware of this), what he lacks in precision he makes up for in animation. As Barnes observes, Holbein does not "draw death as a generalised force." Instead he is a diverse character who expresses many emotions throughout the series. He is in turn mocking, aggressive, determined, resigned, and exhibits real human emotion.

Overall, Holbein's Dance of Death may be interpreted as part of the contemporaneous rise of Protestantism with its implicit judgement against indulgence and excess.

In comparison to the heads of state and dignitaries, here we witness the opposite end of the social scale. The poorly dressed, hunched old woman is presented without any of the rich architecture or lavish clothing present in the other scenes. Unlike the scorn he shows for the monk, here Death displays a very different attitude. Some critics have suggested that Death's arm is raised aloft to strike the old woman, but others see it as part of the dance, mirroring his raised leg and the headdress he wears. In fact, there is almost a strange air of compassion for the old woman as Death takes her arm and gazes down on her without any of the aggression seen above.

Interestingly, this is also one of the few designs in Holbein's series that displays two figures of death - one who leads the old woman and the other who hurries ahead, striking up the dance. With their nimble gestures, and the presence of musical accompaniment, this scene is more faithful to the original Dance of Death concept where dancing skeleton's lead slow, clumsy mortals.


Illustration of the Old Woman and, in
this instance, two figures of Death (Gemmell 1)

Go to next section: Imitations of Holbein