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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

It is clear that while the theme has remained popular, the presentation of the Dance of Death has changed dramatically over the years since its first inception. By taking one image - that of the soldier - we can track its changing form throughout the time span of the Dance of Death.

Although published in 1728 La grande danse macabre
des hommes et des femmes comprises 60 illustrations
 in the medieval woodcut style  (Gemmell 8)

This 1728 publication draws on Guy Marchant's 1486 recreation of the original Dance of Death mural on the church walls of the Holy Innocent's Church in Paris dating back to 1425. Marchant's popular work was produced in the inexpensive chapbook format. This much later edition returns to Marchant's original woodblock designs and pairs them with updated text.

The scene here depicts a medieval knight in full armour carrying a battle axe and sword. Is Death handing him the axe, or initiating a deadly fight?

Holbein's Simolachri, historie, e figure de la
morte, 1549 edition (Gemmell 1)

Holbein's Dance of Death marks the first Dance to be published in book format. Originally published in 1538, our edition dates from 1549.

Holbein's soldier is an armoured professional. He attempts to defend himself from Death's attack, but Holbein captures him at the moment that Death lances him through the middle - a horrible and grisly end, summed up by the soldier's agonised, contorted position. The soldier's armour and decorative plume contrast with Death's scant protection. The image conveys the dynamism and movement of the soldier's last bitter duel.

Imagines mortis, copied from Holbein in 1557 ( Gemmell 2)

Arnaud Nicolai's mid 16th-century imitation of Holbein's soldier does not deviate greatly from the original. He replicates the scene, the pose and the death, but reverses the scene's composition. The background to the scene is somewhat more detailed however, and the characters themselves are changed. Nicolai's Death is less expressive, less determined and less aggressive than Holbein's - his expression is blank. The soldier, however, shows clear pain and fear.

Another Holbein imitation, Todten dantz
durch alle Stande und Geschlecht
der Menschen, 1618 (Gemmell 4)

Again, Eberhard Kieser's early 17th-century adaptation of the Dance replicates Holbein's scene and is very faithful to the original. Yet the use of metal-engraving produces a much more sophisticated image; the floral border that is used throughout Kieser's Dance highlights his decorative leanings.

Merian's Todten-tantz published in 1696, thought by some
 scholars to be a reprint of a 1649 edition (Gemmell 6)

This 17th-century image reproduces that of the knight depicted in the Dance of Death fresco found in Basel in the mid 15th Century. The fresco was once thought to have been the work of Holbein himself; however, this theory has been generally discredited, not least on account of its stylistic variance.

Although destroyed in the 19th century, the Basel mural was reproduced by several artists. The scene shown here comes from the copper-engravings produced by Matthaeus Merian (1593-1650); these are considered to be faithful renderings of the Basel frescos, although obviously overlaid with the nuances of the later period in which they were created.

This Death appears (much more than his predecessors) to be leading a Dance. His dress mimics that of his victim, who stumbles awkwardly as Death leads him on.

Der todten-tanz, wie derselbe in der weitberuhmten
 stadt Basel, 1740 (Gemmell 9)

This 1740 edition of the Dance was one of the many publications offered as guides to the Basel Dance of Death fresco. Ostensibly, these alleged to be reproductions of the mural to be found on the town walls.  In reality, 27 of the 40 plates were imitations of Holbein's scenes. The soldier is clearly one such plate and, despite its simplicity of style, is unmistakably taken after Holbein. Interestingly, Death's hourglass is missing from the foreground of this plate.

Het schouw-toneel des doods by Dutchman
 Rusting, 1741 (Gemmell 10)

Salomon van Rusting's (1650?-ca.1707) Dance of Death was first published in 1707. His illustrations include 6 designs after Holbein as well as much original material.

The image of the soldier here borrows more from Holbein's Warrior (one of the additional blocks that supplemented the later editions of Holbein's Dance of Death), than from his soldier, replicating the composition and dress of the warrior. This is a more active scene than that of the soldier. Death has not yet delivered the fatal blow and the soldier is putting up a good fight. The skeletons in the background are even more striking here. For the first time, the soldier is not wear a suit of armour.

Geistliche Todts-Gedancken, 1753 (S. M. 1655)

Michael Rentz's illustration from 1753 is one of the earliest Dances to dispose entirely with Holbein's influence.

Again, a battle rages behind the fighters, but a later style of warfare is depicted, with cavalry and the suggestion of gun smoke. Here Death unequivocally holds the upper hand as he pins a soldier and his fallen horse to the ground by spear point. The style of the engraving is clearly more ostentatious and detailed than those seen previously.

Die menschliche Sterblichkeit, 1759 (Gemmell 13)

The Meyers' Dance also offers a departure from imitations of Holbein with an imaginative scene involving Death and the soldier. Originally published in 1650 under the title Sterbenspeigel, this edition was produced over a hundred years later.

Once more the scene depicts a more modern style of warfare: we can see a musket at the combatants' feet in the foreground. Death, however, fights with a bone. He is less skeletal here than in previous scenes, with skin and muscle.

Hollar's engravings, published in London in 1794, are
 imitations of Holbeins (Gemmell 15)

W. H. Hollar's engravings were originally produced in the 17th Century, but our illustration is from a later edition, dating from the late 18th Century.

Like that of Rusting, Hollar's soldier borrows more from Holbein's Warrior. In the background we can see evidence of a battle in full swing as men with lances mix with drumming skeletons. Underfoot, Death and the soldier trample the unlucky victims of the battle. Death himself is changed: there is a suggestion of hair, and he is draped in strips of torn fabric or, perhaps, torn flesh. He is presented more as a decaying cadaver than as a preserved skeleton.

The dances of death, through the various stages of
life, published in London, 1803 (Gemmell 17)

This is a British imitation of Holbein's designs, produced by David Deuchar (1743-1808). Deuchar's copper-engravings were first published in 1786 but this 1803 edition is a reprint of the 1788 Edinburgh edition.

Deuchar's designs return to the original soldier image: in the accompanying explanatory text in English and French he is referred to as the Knight.

The English Dance of Death, Volume 1 (1815): originally
issued in monthly parts during 1814-1816 (Gemmell 20)

Thomas Rowlandson's (1756-1827) English Dance of Death dates from the early 19th Century.

Rowlandson here depicts the eager recruit rather than the soldier on the battlefield. While his family and sweetheart express concern and reticence, he is set to join the marching army, encouraged by the rakish figure of Death who already wears the colours. Where previously Death is shown directly fighting with the soldier himself, here the implication is that he need only lead the soldier to war - others will do his job for him.

Dagley's Death's Doings, the second edition published
 in 1827 including many additions (Gemmell Add 50)

Death's Doings by Richard Dagley (d. 1841) was originally published in 1826. This illustration is from the second edition of 1827 which included additional material, including this plate.

Dagley archaically entitles this image "The Warrior". The scene (including the dress) depicted does indeed hearken back to an earlier period, with no attempt being made to portray a contemporary event. Here, an old-fashioned knight in full armour sets out or battle, aided by Death who is helping him with his helmet.

Niklaus Manuels Todtentanz, circa 1832 (Gemmell Add f10)

The scene depicted here is Niklaus Manuels' 19th-century reproduction of the Dance of Death that was originally painted in Berne in the years between 1515 and 1520.

The soldier is armed with a sword, and wears the spurred boots of a cavalry-rider. The heraldic cross on his chest suggests that he may be a crusader. Death traps the soldier here using a lance.

Der Todtentanz in der Marienkirche zu
Lubeck, 1868 (Gemmell Add f9)

Similarly, the image here represents another 19th century reproduction of the Dance of Death at Lubeck, dating from the 1460s. This is by the German artist Carl Julius Milde (1803-1875).

The knight seen here is wearing a full suit of armour, concealing his face. The grinning skeletons appear to be wrapped in their shrouds and are less decomposed and more fleshy than other Death figures.

This chronological assessment brings us to the end of our examination of the Gemmell Collection. As the illustrations depicted here have shown, the theme of the Dance has given rise to many different expressions of the genre that speak volumes about society's attitudes to death. The images featured here, however, comprise only a small selection of one of the Special Collection Department's most fascinating collections. The Dance of Death has held a morbid fascination for readers and artists alike for over half a millennium, and its central message - the impermanence of life - proves just as relevant today