Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death.

The Knight.

The Knight.

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.

The Miser.

The Miser.

The Monk.

The Monk.

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.

You can read and see much more at The Public Domain.


  1. Nightjar says

    Wow. It is quite impressive the amount of detail packed in such tiny woodcuts, and conveying such powerful feelings and messages too. Those are all amazing!

  2. says

    I agree. Doing miniatures of any kind is painstaking, to say the least, but these woodcuts are all the more impressive for being so tiny. There are many more of the images in the book Les simulachres and historiees faces de la mort. I haven’t had a chance to go through the whole thing, and my French is horrible, so it takes me a long time to figure stuff out.

  3. rq says

    Death, the great equalizer. I’ve always thought xe had a sense of irony, if not outright dark humour. Holbein’s work is wonderful, wonderfully exquisite.

  4. says

    rq, I think it’s eloquent and grand. I love the way Holbein personalized Death for each person, and that his Death was definitely inclined toward the social justice side. :D

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