275. The Dance of Death [woodcuts] by Hans Holbein, c. 1526

I have been considering whether or not to add this post to my blog over the past week. Given the subject matter of the work in discussion, and the tragic events happening all over the world right now, it seems insensitive to write in glowing terms about depictions of death. If you are anxious or in mourning, please do not distress yourself by going further. Hopefully we will soon be in happier times.

The Dance of Death is a series of 41 woodcuts featuring the figure of Death coming for a range of people : high and low, rich and poor, young and old. Designed by Hans Holbein and cut by Hans Lutzelburger, they were miniature works of art, each measuring around 45 x 63 mm. There were meant to be 51 in total, but Hans passed away in 1526, ending the project as no one else had the consummate skill required for the work.

The theme of the dance of Death was already established and featured in murals and paintings, particularly in churches. The message was that all people regardless of station in life must all face the same fate. What makes Holbein’s work so memorable is the satire behind each drawing.

I’d love to go into all of them, but space and time and consideration of your patience will limit me to just a few. The explanations are supplied by the Penguin Classic’s commentator, Ulinka Rublack, who does a marvelous job of clearly and succinctly filling in the background.

In some cases the person is blithely unaware of impending Death, in others they are recoiling in horror of the fate befalling them. Below are (i) the Pope, crowning and blessing a king, oblivious of the figures of Death and devils present. The balance of power between popes and kings was still a contentious issue,

(ii) an Emperor, carrying a broken sword of justice and distracted by rich supplicants at court while ignoring the poor,

(iii) a obviously too-well fed abbot,








(iv) a nun in cloisters more enamoured with the handsome troubadour than her prayers, while Death snuffs out her candle,

(v) a child being taken from his parents, (Death’s cap uncomfortably similar to a modern Santa)

and (vi) a worn-out old farmer being hurriedly but justly escorted to the promised Paradise.

Many of the pictures have an hourglass somewhere in the print, almost like a gruesome game of Where’s Wally.

Personal rating:  Perversely perhaps, I really enjoyed this, first studying each print on my own, then reading Rublack’s commentary. A strong 7/10.

Other reading:  This place in the blog was supposed to be reserved for Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (3/10), which I did read during the week but could find little to enthuse or talk about. Like Plato’s Republic, it is well known but perhaps equally rarely read. Holbein went on to become a sought after portrait painter at the court of Henry VIII, where his work included a portrait of More.


    • I’d love a hardcover Folio edition but it would have to have the excellent commentary by Rubleck so I may have to settle for my own copy of the Penguin. I can imagine Renaissance scholars snapping the prints up like trading cards on subscription.

      Liked by 1 person

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