|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.
in 1728 La grande danse
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
Todts-Gedancken, 1753 (S. M. 1655)
|Michael Rentz's illustration from 1753 is one of the
earliest Dances to dispose entirely with Holbein's
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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