Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Holbein’s Dance of Death

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Holbein’s Dance of Death

By George Edward Woodberry (1855–1930)

[A History of Wood-Engraving. 1883.]

THE DANCE of Death was an old subject. It had possessed for centuries a powerful and sometimes morbid attraction for the artistic imagination and for popular reflection. It was peculiarly the product of mediæval Christian life, and survives as a representative of the great mediæval ideas. That age first surrounded death with terrors, fastened the attention of man continually upon his doom, and affrighted his spirit with the dread of that unknown hour of his dissolution which should put him in danger of the second death of immortal agony. In Greece death had been the breaking of the chrysalis by the winged butterfly, or, at least, only the extinction of the torch; here it was the gaunt and grinning skeleton always jostling the flesh of the living, however beautiful or joyous they might be. In the churches of the thirteenth century there swung a banner emblazoned upon one side with the figures of a youth and maiden before a mirror of their loveliness, and, upon the reverse, with Death holding his spade beside the worm-pierced corpse; it was the type of mediæval Christian teaching. The fear of death was the recurring burden of the pulpit; it made the heart of every bowed worshipper tremble, and was taught with fearful distinctness by the pestilence that again and again suddenly struck the populations of Europe. The chord of feeling was overstrained; the elastic force of life asserted itself, and, by a strange transformation, men made a jest of their terror, and played with death as they have never since done; they acted the ravages of death in pantomime, made the tragedy comic, put the figure of Death into their carnivals, and changed the object of their alarm into the theme of their sport. In the spirit of that democracy which, in spite of the aristocratic structure of mediæval society, was embedded in the heart of the Christian system, where every soul was of equal value before God, the people turned the universal moral lesson of death into a satire against the great; Death was not only the common executioner, he arrested the prelates and the nobles, stripped them of their robes and their possessions, and tried them whether they were of God or Mammon. In these many-varied forms of terror, sport, and irony Death filled the imagination and reflection of the age; the shrouded figure or the naked skeleton was seen on the stage of the theatre, amid the games of the people, on the walls of the churches and the monasteries, throughout the whole range of art and literature. Holbein had looked on many representations of this idea: where, as in Dürer’s work, Death attends knight and beggar; or where, as in the Nuremberg Chronicle, the skeletons dance by the open grave; or where, as in the famous series at Basle, Death humbles every rank of life in turn. But Holbein did not look on these scenes as his predecessors had done; he was free from their spirit. He took the mediæval idea and remoulded it, as Shakespeare remoulded the tradition of Denmark and Italy, into a work for all times and generations. He represented Death, but with an artistic power, an imaginative fervor, a perception of the constant element in its interest for mankind, which lifted his work out of mediævalism into universal truth; and in doing this he not only showed the high power of his art, but he unlocked the secrets of his character.

This work is, in the first edition [1538], a series of forty-one small cuts, in each of which is depicted the triumph of Death over some person who is typical of a whole class. Each design represents with intense dramatic power some scene from daily life; Death lays his summons upon all in the midst of their habitual occupations: the trader has escaped shipwreck, and “on the beach undoes his corded bales”—Death plucks him by the cloak; the weary, pack-laden peddler, plodding on in his unfinished journey, turns questioningly to the delaying hand upon his shoulder; the priest goes to the burial of the poor—Death carries the candle in a lantern before him, and rings the warning bell; the drunkard gulps his liquor, the judge takes his bribe, the miser counts his gold—Death interrupts them with a sneer. What poetic feeling, what dramatic force, there is in the picture of the Nun! She kneels with head averted from the altar of her devotions toward the youth who sits upon the bed playing the lute to her sleeping soul, and at the moment Death stands there to put out the light of the taper which shall leave her in darkness forever. What sharp satire there is in the representation of the Preacher dilating, perhaps, in his accustomed, half-mechanical way, upon the terrors of that very Death already at his elbow! What justness of sight, what grimness of reality, there is in the representation of the Ploughman; how directly does Holbein bring us face to face with the human curse—in the sweat of thy brow thou shalt earn death! George Sand, looking out on the spring fields of her remote province and seeing the French peasants ploughing up the soft and smoking soil, remembered this type of peasant life as Holbein saw it, and described this cut in words that vivify the concentrated meaning of the whole series. “The engraving,” she says, “represents a farmer guiding the plough in the middle of a field. A vast plain extends in to the distance, where there are some poor huts; the sun is setting behind a hill. It is the close of a hard day’s work. The peasant is old, thickset, and in tatters; the team which he drives before him is lean, worn out by fatigue and scanty food; the ploughshare is buried in a rugged and stubborn soil. In this scene of sweat and habitual toil there is only one being in good spirits and light of foot, a fantastic character, a skeleton with a whip, that runs in the furrow beside the startled horses and beats them—as it were, a farmer’s boy. It is Death.” She takes up the story again, after a while. “Is there much consolation,” she asks, “in this stoicism, and do devout souls find their account therein? The ambitious, the knave, the tyrant, the sensualist, all the proud sinners who abuse life, and whom Death drags away by the hair, are on their way to a reckoning, no doubt; but the blind, the beggar, the fool, the poor peasant, is there any amends for their long wretchedness in the single reflection that death is not an evil for them? No! an inexorable melancholy, a dismaying fatality, weighs upon the artist’s work. It is like a bitter curse launched on the universal human lot.”

Certainly the artist’s work is a bold and naked statement of man’s mortality, of the close of life contrasted with the worth of its career; but the melancholy of his work is not more inexorable, its fatality is not more dismaying, than the reality he saw. He did not choose for his pencil what was unusual, extraordinary, or abnormal in life; he depicted its accustomed course and its fixed conclusion in fear, folly, or dignity. He took almost every character among men, almost every passion or vice of the race, almost every toil or pursuit in which his contemporaries engaged, and confronted them with their fate. The king is at his feast, Death pours the wine; the poor mother is cooking her humble meal at the hearth, Death steals her child; the bridal pair walk on absorbed, while Death beats their wedding-march with glee. Throughout the series there is the same dramatic insight, the same unadorned reality, the same humanity. Here and there the spirit of the Reformer reveals itself: the Pope in the exercise of his utmost worldly power crowns the emperor, but behind is Death; a devil lurks in the shadow, and over the heads of the cardinals are other devils; the monk, abbot, and prioress—how they resist and are panic-stricken! There can be no doubt at what Holbein reckoned these men and their trade. Holbein showed here, too, his sympathy with the humbler classes in those days of peasant wars, of the German Bible, and of books in the vulgar tongue—the days when the people began to be a self-conscious body, with a knowledge of the opportunities of life and the power to make good their claim to share in them; as Holbein saw life, it was only the humble to whom Death was not full of scorn and jesting, they alone stood dignified in his presence. Beneath this sympathy with the Reformers and the people need we look farther, as Ruskin does, to find scepticism hidden in the shadows of Holbein’s heart? Holbein saw the Church as Avarice, trading in the sins of its children; as Cruelty, rejoicing in the blood of its enemies; as Ignorance, putting out the light of the mind. There was no faltering in his resolute, indignant denial of that Church. Did he find any refuge elsewhere in such hope and faith as remain to man in the suggestions of his own spirit? He saw Death’s triumph, and he made men see it with his eyes; if he saw more than that, he kept silence concerning it. He did not menace the guilty with any peril save the peril of Death’s mockery; he spoke no word of consolation for the good; for the inevitable sorrow of the child’s loss there is no cure, for the ploughman’s faithful labor there is no reward except in final repose by the shadow of the distant spire. He did not open the heavens to let through one gleam of immortal life upon the human lot, unless it be in the Judgment, where only the saved have risen; nevertheless, the purport of that scene, even if it be interpreted with the most Christian realism, cannot destroy the spirit of all others. “Inexorable melancholy, dismaying fatality”—these, truly, are the burden of his work.

The series holds high rank, too, merely as a product of artistic skill. It shows throughout the designer’s ease, simplicity, and economy in methods of work, his complete control of his resources, and his unerring correctness in choosing the means proper to fulfil his ends; few lines are employed, as in the Italian manner, and there is little cross-hatching; but, as in all great art, every line has its work to do, its meaning, which it expresses perfectly, with no waste of labor and no ineffectual effort. In sureness of stroke and accuracy of proportion the drawing is unsurpassed; you may magnify any of the designs twelve times, and even the fingers will show no disproportion in whole or in part. It is true that there is no anatomical accuracy; no single skeleton is correctly drawn in detail, but the shape of Death, guessed at as a thing unknown, is so expressed that in the earliest days of the work men said that in it. “Death seemed to live, and the living to be truly dead.” The correctness, vigor, and economy of line in the drawing of these cuts made them a lesson to later artists like Rubens, merely as an example of powerful and truthful effects perfectly obtained at the least expense of labor. In this respect they were in design a triumph of art, as much as they were in conception a triumph of imagination.