The Dance of Death by the German artist Hans Holbein (1497–1543) is a great, grim triumph of Renaissance woodblock printing. In a series of action-packed scenes Death intrudes on the everyday lives of thirty-four people from various levels of society — from pope to physician to ploughman. Death gives each a special treatment: skewering a knight through the midriff with a lance; dragging a duchess by the feet out of her opulent bed; snapping a sailor’s mast in two. Death, the great leveller, lets no one escape. In fact it tends to treat the rich and powerful with extra force. As such the series is a forerunner to the satirical paintings and political cartoons of the eighteenth century and beyond. For example, Death sneaks up behind the judge, who is ignoring a poor man to help a rich one, and snaps his staff, the symbol of his power, in two. A chain around Death’s neck suggests he is taking revenge on corrupt judges on behalf of those they have wrongfully imprisoned. In contrast, Death seems to come to the aid of the poor ploughman, by driving his horses for him and releasing him from a life of toil; the glowing church in the background implies this old man is on his way to heaven.
Holbein drew the woodcuts between 1523 and 1525, while in his twenties and based in the Swiss town of Basel.
These woodcuts are beautiful and highly detailed. In Holbein’s hands, Death makes its feelings known; Death is quite gentle in the cases of the old woman and old man, poor folk, and those of the peasant class. On the other side, Death is more than a little rude, as in the violin playing as Death drags the Duchess out of her bed. Death is not kind when it comes to the abbot, the abbess, or the monk.
One notable thing makes these beautiful woodcuts all the more astonishing, the size of them:
Holbein’s achievement is the greater because of the miniature scale he was drawing in. Reproductions obscure just how tiny the wooden blocks were — no bigger than four postage stamps arranged in a rectangle. The blocks were cut by Hans Lützelburger, a frequent and highly skilled collaborator of Holbein’s. Lützelburger had cut forty-one blocks and had ten remaining when Death surprised him too. The blocks were then sold to creditors, and eventually printed and published for the first time in Lyons in 1538 as Les simulachres and historiees faces de la mort.
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