The motif of the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death, has been used recurrently and imaginatively in the arts to invite viewers to contemplate the universality and finality of death. Death knows no master and it arrives for the master as it does for the servant; rich and poor, learned and simple, men and women, all succumb to it. Blooming palely in the plague- and war-stricken darkness of medieval Europe, the motif found favour in painting and sculpture and eventually, with the development of the printing press in the late 15th century, in print. In the 20th century, it clanked its way into cinematic arts, manifesting most memorably in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. A strand of figures is led by Death across a distant ridge. Tiny and inconsequential, they are joined and homogenised in death. Their collective dance, their frail prancing over the hilltop, has a tragic acceptance to it that reinforces what all Danse Macabre sequences set out to convey – death comes for all.
Penguin Classics has now brought the most elaborate portrayal of the theme to contemporary audiences by publishing Hans Holbein’s 41 miniature woodcuts, titled The Dance of Death, as a paperback edition with a commentary by Ulinka Rublack, Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Cambridge. Hans Holbein the Younger (he of The Ambassadors fame and creator of the world’s most iconic anamorphic skull) worked on these woodcuts between 1523 and 1525, at a time when the medium of print was redefining Europe and Christianity. Basel, the Swiss city where these images were created, was a leading centre of the new print zeitgeist. The restive cultural environment of the European Renaissance and the political shifts and machinations of the time, all of which informed Holbein’s practice in varying degrees, have been concisely and simply explained by Rublack in an 80-page commentary that follows the crisp reproductions of his woodcuts. Light is shed, too, on his own life – his training, which began at home (his father, Hans Holbein the Elder was a painter in his own right and his brother, Ambrosius, was also a painter and printmaker), and his social ascension which eventually placed him in the court of England’s Henry VIII.
The woodcuts – the main content of this modest, useful book – are perhaps one of the most comprehensive treatments of the Dance of Death in art. Rifling through the book shows palm-sized prints but a small reproduction at the very start, measuring no more than 2 by 2 and a half inches, is offered to remind us of the size of the original designs. They were truly miniature works of marvellous detail, stuffed with symbols and rife with expression and animation. Holbein seems to have come up with tirelessly ingenious ways of depicting Death and its summons to a variegated cast of stock figures. Death peers across the papal tiara of a pope and disguises itself as an attendee at his court. It fingers the crown of an emperor who clutches a broken sword. It pours wine for a king seated imperiously at a feast. It drags a wailing abbess by a cloth around her neck. It pulls at the folds of an abbot’s cloak, impervious to his protestations. It mocks a preacher, vexes a miser, terrifies a merchant, jousts with a knight. But it is tender when it comes to collect an old man, leading him gently by the hand to his grave. This was important to present, as it reinforced the Reformation’s outcry against pomp and corruption in religious office and made this Dance, like other versions of the motif, a “distinct form of social commentary”, to quote Rublack.
Penguin Classics has done a deal of good to artists, art students, art lovers, and all those interested in the innocently symbolic language and earnest themes of the late middle ages. One feels advantaged to be able to hold all 41 of Holbein’s woodcuts in a lightweight, affordable paperback. It is quite fitting, too, as this is what the printing revolution was all about.
The Dance of Death was first published by Penguin Classics in 2016.