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Dance of Death, 38







r A s.


Son of Hans Holbein the elder, who was an excellent
painter, and remarkable for his portrait drawings in
silver-point: b. 1497, at Augsburg; left Augsburg
about 1513-1514 with his elder brother Ambrosius
Holbein; settled in Basle, 1515, as pupil of Hans
Herbster ; worked at Lucerne between 1517-1519,
being commissioned to decorate the house of Jakob von
Hertenstein : the influence of Lombard portraiture on
his painting suggests a probable visit to Italy about
1518; returned to Basle and became Master of the
Guild in 1519, probably taking over the studio of his
brother Ambrosius, of whom there is no record after
1518 ; did much designing for glass painting about this
date, also decorative paintings (of which practically
nothing remains) for the Council Chamber in the
Rathaus, 1521-1522; the earliest of his designs for
woodcut illustrations date about 1519; the famous
portraits of Erasmus, who was then living at Basle,
painted at this period (e.g., the pictures at Basle and
Paris) ; visited France 1524, where acquaintance with
chalk drawings of the Clouet school may have helped
to form the later style of his portrait drawings ; in
1526 travelled in the Netherlands, and settled for a
time at Antwerp ; paid his first visit to England,

1527, being introduced by Erasmus to Sir Thomas
More, his earliest English patron ; returned to Basle

1528, and in 1529 was again working for Basle pub-
lishers, designing illustrations for Sebastian Miinster's
" Cosmography " (published 1534) ; Elizabeth Schmid,
whom he had married about 1520 (portrayed with
her two children in a picture of about 1528-9 at
Basle), remained throughout Holbein's life at Basle ;
Holbein again in England 1532, doing the famous
picture of the Ambassadors (National Gallery) about
this time; entered the Royal service about 1536,
being given apartments in Whitehall, perhaps over
the gate called after him, " Holbein's Gate " ; en-
gaged on wall decoration in the palace, and is said
to have painted a Dance of Death (but all his work


here was destroyed in the fire of 1698) ; the won-
derful series of chalk drawings of famous personages
at the court of Henry N^III (chiefly preserved at
Windsor, others at British Museum, &c.) done at
about this period ; also reached the zenith of his power
as a portrait painter, showing an unsurpassed mastery
and reserve in naturalistic portrait ; undertook various
commissions abroad for the King, in Brussels, Bur-
gundy, Cleves, &c., 1538-1539, painting eligible con-
sorts for his royal master, i.e., the Duchess of Milan
and Anne of Cleves; d. in London, 1543, leaving
unfinished the picture still preserved in the Barber-
Surgeons' Hall.

HOLBEIN'S Images of the Old Testament* as they were
called in the English edition of 1549, are the most wonder-
ful series of illustration to the Bible in existence. Even
outside the more limited sphere of book illustration they
have practically no rivals, except the scriptural prints of Diirer and
Rembrandt. Inspiration is so much more often found in separate
works than in a series, that it is all the more remarkable to see so high a
level of artistic power preserved throughout the ninety-one uniform
cuts that make up Holbein's Old Testament.

In some respects Holbein's genius is pedestrian in relation to the
great masters I have mentioned. He has neither Diirer's intellect
nor Rembrandt's passion and penetrative insight. But he is more
purely the painter than either of them. He depicts nature from
the outside with an unerring vision. His eye for the facts of
life and the details of physiognomy is so true, that the heart of
things is communicated even when it may have escaped his own

It is this ungarnished truth to life, rather than any interpretative
insight, that chiefly characterises Holbein's woodcuts. In some ways
it is not a matter for regret that he did not continue his illustrations
to the New Testament, which had already found a perfect inter-
preter in Diirer. Holbein's simpler genius was more adapted to the
heroic narratives of Jewish history, akin to Homer in their direct and
naive appeal.

In his second great series, the Dance of Death, one might have

* The title of the first edition of 1538 was Historiarum Veteris Imtru-
mentl Icones ad vivum exfressee, Instrumenti being changed to Testamenti in
the second and later issues.



expected that success would only be achieved by an artist of the
highest imaginative power. But even here the directness of his out-
look on life lends a vigour to his presentation which a more subtly
imaginative rendering might have lost.

The subject of the Danse Macabre* was typically medieval, and
Holbein's treatment of the theme still partakes of the simple medieval
spirit. The conventional skeleton is made a thoroughly living, and
almost sympathetic figure, and terrible less in himself than in the
occasional fear he inspires in his victims. But Holbein often leaves
terror on one side, and attempts no more than some common incident
from daily life, in which Death plays his part unrecognised by the
actors, and only lends a pathos to the scene in the spectator's eyes.

Death was never so present in life as in the adventurous times of
the later Middle Ages in Europe, and it was natural that popular
poems and miracle plays should have been composed to fire the
popular imagination, through fear of sudden death, to right living and
religious devotion. The thirteenth century poem of the Three Dead
and the Three Living (wherein the three living are accosted by the
spectres with the words " What you are, that were we ; what we are,
that you will be "), and Petrarch's Triumph of Death are other
examples analogous to the miracle plays. It was these miracle plays
which must have inspired the numerous series of paintings of the
Dance of Death in cloister and church, f and found their final and
most typical illustration in Holbein's wonderful cuts.

In this Dance of^Death^. which was first published by the brothers
Trechsel of Lyons in the same year as the Old Testament Illustra-
tions, there is no mention of Holbein as the author. The dedicatory

* The origin of this title, popularly connected with a mythical poet
Macaber, is obscure. It is probably the French rendering of the medieval
Latin Chorea Machab&orum. In this dance, of which there is mention in
the fifteenth century, the characters apparently fell out one by one as
Death appeared, and from its title it is likely that the seven Maccabees
played the chief roles. See Grimm, Deutsche Mythohgie, 1835, p. 495,
and Du Cange, Glossarium mediae Latinitatis, IV (1845). Douce less
plausibly suggests derivation from Macairus, the hermit traditionally con-
nected with the story of the Three Dead and the Three Living (see Vasari,
on Orcagna and the fresco at Pisa).

t E.g., Klingenthalkloster, Basle (i4th century), Predigerkloster, Basle,
Paris (Cloister of the Innocents), Old St. Paul's, London (i5th century).

J First issued with the title Les Sitnulachres et hiitoric'es faces de la Mori ;
later as Let Images de la Mart, Imagines or hones Mortis, etc.



epistle by Jean de Vauzelle regrets the death of " celuy qui nous en
a icy imaging si Elegantes figures," which could only refer to Hans
Ltitzelburger the woodcutter, who died in 1526. Why Holbein's
name appears in no edition of this series is a question that has been
variously answered. Probably Woltmann is right in suggesting that
the authorship needed to be veiled and the book dedicated to an
abbess to secure it from the censor in view of its pronounced pro-
testant and satirical tendencies. In any case in spite of the editor's
words, Hans Liitzelburger, whose signature appears on the cut of
the Duchess (36), can only be regarded as the cutter of the designs.
Apart from tradition, absolute proof is furnished by the presence of
the first four cuts of the Dance of Death in the separate issues of the
Old Testament Illustrations. The latter series was also published
anonymously on its first issue, but in the second and following issues
(1539, &c.), verses are added in praise of Holbein, as well as a distich
by Nicolas Bourbon de Vandceuvre directly attributing the authorship.

Both series must have been designed and, to a large extent, cut in
the three or four years preceding Liitzelburger's death in 1526. A
set of contemporary drawings copied from twenty-three cuts of the
Dance of 'Death, now preserved in Berlin, is dated 1527. From the
preface to the Dance of Death it would appear that Hans Liitzelburger
had left various blocks with the designs traced upon them ready for
cutting, but that the publishers had hitherto failed to find a successor
worthy of completing the work. We may assume, in consequence,
that the first edition of 1538 was throughout cut by Liitzelburger.
It was only for the editions of 1545 and 1562 that the other blocks
were completed.

In regard to the Old Testament Illustrations we have no such
guide as to which of the cuts are by Liitzelburger, for the series was
already complete in the first edition, and the set of early proofs
belonging to the Basle Museum also shows the complete series. But
there is no difficulty in distinguishing the crudeness of such blocks
as the Zechariah (90) and the Joel (86) from the genius for cutting
shown in others like the Destruction of Pharaoh's Host (13), with
its wonderfully subtle rendering of multitudes and aerial perspective
on so small a scale. Many of the earlier cuts are almost as broad in
their lineal character as the Zechariah, but the Hannah and Elkanah
(33) i s enough to show the distinction in expressive power.
Probably Holbein supplied designs which were to be followed line by
line by his cutter and in general cutters are forgotten as mere efficient
craftsmen ; but in this case the work of reproduction is so superlative,
not only in its perfect delicacy but in its revelation of subtle varieties


of tone and expression achieved with the fewest lines, that we must
always think of the work as the most perfect collaboration of two
artists of genius.

From the technical point of view it is interesting to compare the
copies of the Dance of Death engraved on wood by Thomas Bewick,
almost entirely in his white-line method, and published under the
title Emblems of Mortality, London, 1789. Ltitzelburger, like nearly
all the early cutters, worked in the negative method, clearing away all
the wood on the white portions of the design, leaving the lines in
relief to print black. Bewick found that the most direct method for
the wood-engraver was to treat the surface of the block as a black
ground, and to engrave * the lines of the design into this to print
white, the ink being, of course, printed from the surface, not pulled
out of the incised lines as in line-engraving and etching. The com-
parison of Bewick's very pedestrian work serves also to show the
perfection of expressive and subtle line attained by Holbein and his
original translator.

The Dance of Death is known in five complete sets of proofs with
German titles, evidently printed at Basle, and now preserved in Paris,
Carlsruhe, Basle, Berlin, and the British Museum. They are printed
in much blacker ink than the Lyons editions, and included everything
of the first Lyons edition except the Astronomer. On the other hand,
only one set of proofs of the Old Testament Illustrations is known
that preserved at Basle.

Each series was first published by the brothers Trechsel t in small
quarto form, with one cut on each page ; but the later editions of the
Dance of Death (though practically no smaller in form) are in octavo.
They both went through a large number of editions in the twenty
years or so succeeding first publication.

The complete set of designs for the Dance of Death did not appear,
as we have already indicated, before the edition of 1562, but the
supplementary cuts in both the 1545 and 1562 issues were partly
subjects alien to the main thesis. Perhaps Holbein may have
originally intended these gambols and triumphs of children to form a
part of his scheme in a sort of symbolic reference to the young life
that has no thought of death.

Each subject had a verse from Scripture at its head, and a French
quatrain by Gilles Corozet at the foot, the latter being translated

* Using the burin (the same tool as the line-engraver's) not the knife of
the early cutters.

f The succeeding editions by the brothers Frellon.



for the Latin edition by Luther's brother-in-law, George Oemmel

Apart from the small quarto editions, the Old Testament cuts
appeared in various folio Bibles issued by Trechsel and Frellon at
Lyons (1538, 1544, and 1551).

In Holbein's treatment of the different subjects there must of
course have been a considerable element of convention, and a large
number were directly suggested by the attractive little Venetian cuts
of the Malermi Bible of 1490, which in its turn had drawn freely
from the Cologne Bible of 1480. But Holbein's work so far surpasses
anything in the Malermi Bible, turning shorthand symbols into real life,
that it has established a permanent appeal to the popular imagination
while the other remains the more exclusive delight of the antiquarian.

I have not attempted to give a complete list of Holbein's cuts out-
side the two famous series. Since Woltmann's book (which is still
the standard catalogue of Holbein's work) research has brought many
other illustrations into relation with Holbein. All I will do here is
to refer the student to the most recent literature, and to give a few
representative illustrations.

The small woodcut Initials with the Dance of Death^ which was
issued with Lutzelburger's name attached, is a tour de force in its
perfect precision of cutting and in the wonderful adaptation of these
designs in so small a compass.* The Initials with Illustrations to the
Old Testament"^ are somewhat larger, but hardly equal in merit to the
former set. Both are known in proof impressions, and were used in
numerous books printed at Basle.

The Portrait of Erasmus is a masterpiece of portraiture in woodcut,
as well as one of the most perfect examples of Renaissance decorative
art. DibdinJ states that the second state was issued as frontispiece to
Erasmus's collected works (Basle, 1540), but Woltmann was unable
to authenticate this. Its plastic qualities would render it a perfect
design for a sculpture monument.

In England Holbein was too occupied with his larger works to
devote much time to book illustration. The English cutters were
far inferior to Ltttzelburger and his Basle contemporaries, but the two
examples given from Cranmer's "Catechism" of 1548,35 well as
another, the Christ as the Good Shepherd in a " Little Treatise" by
Urbanus Rhegius (also published byW. Lynne in 1548), show that even
cruder cutting failed to impair Holbein's vivid and expressive touch.

* Each initial 25 mm. square ; reduced in our illustrations.

j' Each initial 44 mm. square.

j Decameron, i. p. 236.


DIBDIN, T. F. Bibliographical Decameron. London 1817. (Vol. I, p.

33, etc).
DOUCE, F. The Dance of Death exhibited in elegant engravings on wood ;

with a dissertation on the several representations of that subject, but

more particularly those ascribed to Macaber and Hans Holbein.

London 1833
RUMOHR, C. F. von. Hans Holbein der jungere in seinem Verhaltniss zum

deutschen Formschnittwesen. Leipzig 1836
MASSMANN, H. F. Literatur der Totentanze. Leipzig 1840
PASSAVANT, J. D. Peintre-graveur. Vol. Ill (1862), p. 353
WOLTMANN, Alfred. Holbein und seine Zeit. 2 vols. Leipzig 1866-68.

2nd Ed., 1874-76. (This still remains the standard work on Holbein.

It contains a catalogue of his woodcut work)
WORNUM, R. N. Some account of the life and works of Hans Holbein,

painter of Augsburg. London 1867
His, E. Hans Liitzelburger le graveur des simulacres de la mort d'Holbein.

Gazette des "Beaux Arts, 2 e per. IV (1871), 481
VOGELIN, S. Erganzungen und Nachweisungen zum Holzschnittwerk

Hans Holbeins des jungeren. Repertorium fur Kunstwisscnschajt, II

(1877) 162, 312, V. 179
LOGA, V. von. Der Triumph des Jacobus Castricus. Jahrbuch der Treuss.

T^unstsammlungen, XV (1894), 58

GOETTE, A. Holbein's Totentanz und seine Vorbilder. Strassburg 1897
SCHMIDT, H. A. Holbein's Thatigkeit fur die Baseler Verleger. Jahrbuch

der Preuss. J^unstsammlungen, XX, 233

SCHNEELI, G., and HEITZ, P. Initialen von Holbein. Strassburg 1900
DAVIES, Gerald S. Hans Holbein the younger. London 1903
DODGSON, Campell. Neues fiber Holbein's Metallschnitte zum Vaterunser.

Mitteilungen der Geselhch. fur vervielfaltig. T^unst. 1903, p. I, and 1905,

p. 10

Das Holzschnitt portrat von N. Borbonius. Mitteilungen, 1908, p. 37
KOEGLER, Hans. Erganzungen zum Holzschnittwerk des Hans und Ambrosius

Holbein. Jahrbuch der Preuss. Kunstsamml. XXVIII (1907). Beiheft,

p. 85.

Hans Holbein's Holzschnitte fiir Sebastian Miinster's "Instrument

iiber die zwei Lichter" (Basel 1534). Jahrbuch, XXXI, 254.

Kleine Beitrage. ZMonatshefte filr Kunstwissenschaft IV (1911), 389
MAJOR, E. Easier Horologien biicher mit Holzschnitten von Hans Holbein.

Monatshefte, IV (1911), 77
GANZ, Paul. HansHolbein. Stuttgart 1911 (Klassiker der Kunst). Contains

a complete reproduction of Holbein's paintings

Die Handzeichnungen Hans Holbeins des jungeren. Berlin 191 1, etc.



The Frontispiece is No. 38 from the Dance of Death.


The order of the original publication, that of the Vulgate, is preserved.
The cuts are reproduced complete with the exception of seven purely
decorative subjects of little artistic interest.

1. The Fall. Genesis, iii. 'This cut
does not occur in the separately printed
series of the cuts, but occurs in several
of the editions of the Old Testament
published at Basle (e.g. 7 'reck' el,

1538, and Frelhn, 1551). /// place
was regularly taken in the series by
the first four subjects of the Dance of

2. Noah's Ark. Genesis, vii

3. The Building of the Tower of
Babel. Genesis, xi

4. Abraham and the Three Angels.
Genesis, xviii

5. Abraham's Sacrifice. Genesis,

6. Isaac Blessing Jacob. Genesis,

7. Joseph in the Pit. Genesis,

8. Pharaoh's Dreams. Genesis, xli

9. Jacob Blessing Ephraim and
Manasseh. Genesis, xlviii

10. The Burial of Joseph. Exodus, i

11. Moses and the Burning Bush.
Exodus, iii

12. Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh.
Kxodus, v

13. The Destruction of Pharaoh's
Host. Exodus, xiv and xv

14. The Gathering of the Manna.
Exodus, xv i

15. Moses on Mount Sinai. Exodus,

17. Moses Receiving the Tables of

the Law. Exodus, xxxiv

1 8. Moses Receiving God's Law of
the Burnt Offerings. Leviticus, i

19. Moses Receiving God's Law of
the Consecration of Priests. Levi-
ticus, viii

20. Nadab and Abihu, for Offering
Strange Sacrifices, are Burnt by
Fire. Leviticus, x

21. Moses Receiving God's Law of
the Harvest and Gleanings. Levi-
ticus, xix

22. Moses and Aaron Numbering
the People. Numbers, i

24. The Destruction of Korah and
his Followers. Numbers, xvi

25. The Brazen Serpent. Numbers,

26. Moses and the Midianite Wo-
men and Children. Numbers,

27. Moses Addressing the People of
Israel. Deuteronomy, i

28. Moses Exhorting the People to
Obedience. Deuteronomy, iv

29. Moses Addressing the Levites.
Deuteronomy, xviii

30. Joshua and the Kings that he
had Smitten. Joshua, xii

31. Adoni-BezekMutilated. Judges,

32. Ruth Gleaning in the Fields of
Boaz. Ruth, ii

33. Hannah and Elkanah. I Sam-
uel, i

34. Samuel Anointing Saul. I
Samuel, x

35. David and Goliath. I Samuel,

36. David Hearing of the Philistines
Fighting Against Keilah. I
Samuel, xxiii

37. David Hearing of Saul's Death.
2 Samuel, i

38. David Subduing His Enemies.
2 Samuel, viii

39. David and Uriah. 2 Samuel,

40. Nathan before David. 2 Samuel,

41. David and the Woman of
Tekoah. 2 Samuel, xiv

42. The Murder of Amasa. 2
Samuel, xx

43. David and Abishag. I Kings, i

44. Hiram's Messenger before Solo-
mon. I Kings, v

45. The Prophet Ahijah and Jero-
boam's Wife. I Kings, xiv

46. Elijah's Sacrifice. i Kings,

47. The Children Mocking Elisha.
2 Kings, ii

48. Jehoiada, the Priest, Com-
manding Athaliah's Death. 2
Kings, xi

49. Ahaz's Offering. 2 Kings, xvi

50. Josiah Causing the Book of the
Law to be Read in a Solemn As-
sembly. 2 Kings, xxiii

51. Rehearsing the Genealogy of
Israel. I Chronicles, i

52. Saul's Head and Armour Brought
into the Temple of the Philis-
tines. I Chronicles, x

53. The Levites Playing Before the
Ark. i Chronicles, xvi

54. Solomon's Prayer. 2 Chroni-
cles, i

55. Solomon Blesses the People. 2
Chronicles, vi


56. Shishak Carrying Away the
Treasures of the Temple. 2
Chronicles, xii

57. The Destruction of Sen-
nacherib's Host. 2 Chronicles,
xxx ii

58. The Return of the Jews from
Captivity. Ezra, i

59. Nehemiah's Prayer. Nehe-
miah, i

60. Josiah Keeps the Passover.
Apocrypha : i Esdras, i (also 2
Chronicles, xxxv)

61. The Blindness of Tobit. Apo-
crypha : Tobit, i and ii

62. Job in his Mourning Blesses
God. Job, i

63. Job and Eliphaz. Job. xv

64. God Answers Job. Job, xxxviii
and xlii

65. Esther Before Ahasuerus. Esther,
i and ii

66. Judith Sets Forth From the
City. Apocrypha : Judith, x

67. Judith with the Head of Holo-
fernes. Apocrypha : Judith, xiii

68. David Writing the Psalms.
Psalms, i

69. The Fool. Psalms, liii

70. The Lord said unto my Lord,
Sit thou at my right hand.
Psalms, ex

71. The Lovers. Song of Solomon, i

72. Isaiah Lamenting over Jerusa-
lem. Isaiah, i

73. Isaiah and the Vision of the
Lord. Isaiah, vi

75. Ezekiel's Vision. Ezekiel, i

79. The Fiery Furnace. Daniel,
iii (and Apocrypha : The Song
of the Three Holy Children)

80. Daniel's Vision of the Four
Beasts. Daniel, vii

81. Gabriel Interprets the Vision of



the Ram and the Goat. Daniel,

83. Daniel, Susanna and the Elders.
Apocrypha : Susanna

84. Daniel in the Lion's Den.
(Daniel, vi, and Apocrypha : Bel
and the Dragon)

85. Hosea and his Wife. Hosea, i

86. Joel. Joel, i

87. Amos Teaching. Amos, i

88. Jonah and Nineveh. Jonah, i,
ii and iii

89. Habakkuk about to take Dinner
to the Reapers, is commanded by
the Angel to carry it to Daniel.
Aprocrypha: Bel and the Dragon,

33? 34

90. Zechariah. Zechariah, i

91. The Vision of the Horseman
over Jerusalem. 2 Maccabees, v


The order followed is that of the edition of 1562. The reproductions
are numbered according to this order, but their arrangement on the plates
after No. 44 has been slightly altered to bring kindred subjects together.
In the original book only one cut occurs on each page. The first edition
of 1538 (probably Liitzelburger's work in its entirety) contained Nos. 1-39
and 56 and 57. To the edition of 1545 were added Nos. 40-45, and 48-
53, and to that of 1562 Nos. 46, 47, 54, 55 and 58.

1. The Creation 23,

2. The Fall 2j.

3. Adam and Eve driven from the 25.
Garden of Eden 26.

4. Adam Tilling the Ground 27.

5. The Trumpeters of Death 28.

6. Pope 29.

7. Emperor 30.

8. King 31.

9. Cardinal 32.

10. Empress 33.

1 1. Queen 34.

12. Bishop 35.

13. Duke 36.

14. Abbot 37.

15. Abbess 38.

16. Nobleman 39.

17. Canon 40.

18. Judge 41.

19. Advocate 42.

20. Councillor 43.

21. Preacher 44.

22. Pastor 45.



Old Woman








Old Man





Ploughman. Frontispiece







Children's Triumph: The Victor

46. Young Wife

47. Young Husband

48. Children's Triumph : The

49. Blind Man

50. Carter

5 i . Sick Beggar

52. Child with Shield and Arrow


53. Children, one carrying a Hare

54. Children with Grapes and Vine

55. Children with a Suit of Armour

56. The Last Judgement

57. The Coat of Arms of Death

58. Children with Trumpets and


1. St. Paul. From the New Testa-
ment in Greek, Basle (T. Platter),


Online LibraryArthur Mayger HindHans Holbein the younger; his Old Testament illustrations, Dance of death, and other woodcuts → online text (page 1 of 2)