University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.

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

Todten dantz dürch alle Stände und
 Geschlecht der Menschen
, (Gemmell 4)

Holbein's Dance of Death continued to grow in stature and popularity, and with success came imitations. 

Gundersheiner writes that in the 16th Century there were up to 100 unauthorized editions and adaptations of his work, deducing: "It is evident, then, that in these woodcuts, Holbein had designed a work of enduring significance and appeal."

Marcia Collins points out that several Basel town guides featured images that were ostensibly of the town's Dance of Death murals, but that in fact owed more to Holbein's designs than the actual murals. Other artists produced their own versions of Holbein for publication, of varying quality.


Holbein's Pope illustration (Gemmell 1)

Nicolai's imitation, 1557 (Gemmell 2)

Kieser's imitation, 1618 (Gemmell 4)

The two images above and that to the left compare Holbein's original designs with two variations of the same scene.

Above, to the left, is Holbein's Pope; according to Gundersheimer, this is a depiction of Leo X. The illustration above right is from Imagines mortis, published in Köln 19 years after Holbein's first edition, in 1557. Arnaud Nicolai is generally attributed as the artist responsible for its 53 plates; it also features epigrams by Gilles Corroset (1510-1568). It is clear that Nicolai took his designs straight from Holbein and Lutzelburger. There is a little more detail in the background of Nicolai's scenes - he adds in hills and clouds to provide perspective in this example, for instance, but the flying demons are absent. But possibly the most interesting deviation is that Nicolai's scenes are reversed versions of Holbein's, perhaps suggesting that they were carved directly from Holbein's images.

The illustration to the left is from a later Dance of Death by Eberhard Kieser. Produced in the early 17th Century (c. 1618), it also draws directly on Holbein. Again, the scene is reversed, but the illustration is more finely detailed and an elaborate decorative border is added. There is a crucial technical difference in the way this illustration was produced, however: in this book, the illustrations are engravings made from metal plates rather than the woodcuts of the earlier editions. Metal engravings allowed artists to incorporate far more detail into their work.

Holbein's physician (Gemmell 1)

The popularity of the Dance of Death showed no signs of abating, and as the 17th Century progressed, imitations continued apace.

W. H. Hollar (1607-1677) was an engraver who lived in Germany. His adaptation of Holbein's Dance ran to many editions, even after his death. The illustration shown to the right is taken from a later hand-coloured edition of 1816. The scenes are accompanied by descriptions of the action in both French and English.

Marcia Collins regards Hollar's work as one of the most skilful 17th-century imitators of Holbein.

Hollar's physician (Gemmell 24)

However, some artists did not slavishly imitate Holbein's designs, but adapted his original concept to their own ends. For example, Dutchman Salomon van Rusting's early 18th Century interpretation of the Dance of Death (dating from 1707, although the Special Collections copy is a later 1741 edition) utilised some of Holbein's scenes, but interspersed them with completely new images.

Holbein's astrologer (Gemmell 1)


To the right is Rusting's version of Holbein's astrologer (shown left).

While the scene is basically the same, the style of the metal engraving is far more elaborate than the clean lines of Holbein's woodcut.

Imitation of astrologer scene (Gemmell 10)

Gomorrah scene  from Van Rusting (Gemmell 10)

Windmill from Van Rusting (Gemmell 10)

Rusting also supplemented his work with additional Biblical scenes; he depicts the figure of Death as being present at the great flood, at the slaughter of children in Bethlehem, and at the sacking of Gomorrah (shown above left). As the town goes up in flames in the distance and its inhabitants flee, several figures of Death rejoice, dancing with glee and shaking tambourines. Rusting also created new scenes drawn from his everyday life in Amsterdam. These include depictions of skaters and circus acts, tightrope walkers, and above right, workers in the Dutch windmills. The skeletal death figures once more provide musical accompaniment.

Go to next section: Baroque Dances of Death