Friday, October 31, 2014

Hans Holbein and The Dance of Death

For centuries, the short, gray days of November, heralds of winter, have prompted Christians to remember and honor their beloved dead and to reflect upon their own inevitable end. The Middle Ages embodied this heightened awareness in visual depictions of The Dance of Death (Danse macabre). In this vivid allegory, a personified Death summons individuals from all walks of life to join a chain of frolicking skeletons. Adorning churches and private chapels, such paintings reminded viewers that death spares no one and all, status notwithstanding, share the same ultimate fate.

St. Nicolas's Church, Tallin
The visual tradition of the Dance of Death continued well into the seventeenth century. In the early sixteenth, the German painter Hans Holbein modified the tradition in a way thought to reflect burgeoning Reformation theology. Instead of depicting Death's victims united in an unbroken chain after their passing, he fashioned a stunning series of sketches wherein Death snatches victims away in the midst of their normal daily activities. Pope, king, nobleman, merchant, old woman, priest, peddler, child: a grisly skeleton comes for each at the moment he or she least expects it. Death is as likely to arrive during the performance of sinful actions as charitable ones; good works provide no protection from its ravages.

Hans Lützelburger of Basel cut Holbein's sketches into wood blocks sometime between 1523 and 1526. The woodcuts soon appeared in proofs with German titles. It wasn't until 1538, however, when 
the drawings were published in book form by the Treschsel brothers in Lyon, France, that Holbein's vision reached a wider audience.

Les Simulachres & historiees faces de la mort, autant elegamment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées (Images and Illustrated Facets of Death, as elegantly depicted as they are artfully conceived) features forty-one of Holbein's woodcuts. An illustrative Bible verse crowns each engraving; below the picture follows a short quatrain in French by the poet Gilles Corrozet. The book was intended to help Christians of both persuasions prepare for death by meditating on the vanity of status and possessions, which offered no protection from Death's violence.

Here are a few of Holbein's more striking engravings:

The King (Note the fleur-de-lys and the marked resemblance to François I)
The Young Child
The Physician

The Abbess
The Ploughman
The Drunkard
The Soldier
You can view the entirety of the Simulachres with their Bible verses and accompanying poems here. The work was published at least six times in French by 1562. Innumerable copies in various languages followed through the nineteenth century. The popularity of the work attests to Holbein's genius. By rendering the horror of sudden death visible and viscerally palpable, he reminds viewers to take not a single moment of life for granted. A valuable lesson, even today.

Memento mori. Death comes for all--don't let it catch you by surprise.

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