EXHIBIT OF THE MONTH: The Dance of Death

Holbein's Dance of Death which is on display in the Ruskin Collection until December
Holbein's Dance of Death which is on display in the Ruskin Collection until December

I’d like to think that Hans Holbein the Younger had a satirist’s sense of humour; dark and grim, but with a biting edge to provoke comment, if not outrage.

In Britain, Holbein is most famous for his lavish portraits of Henry VIII, his family and courtiers. Many of them appear in magnificent detail, wearing jewels and set amongst the trappings of wealth; they are dominating figures of authority and power. It is otherwise with his Dance of Death. Holbein’s skeletal Death gives Emperors and courtiers short and often brutal shrift; he mocks them for their vanity, pride and corruption.

The Dance of Death (or ‘Pictures of Death’) in the Ruskin Collection of the Guild of St George is a series of 41 images, produced in wood engraving at a tiny scale, and published with just a little text in book form in 1538 by Gaspar and Melchior Trechsel in Lyon. The Trechsel Brother’s edition is a reprinting of Holbein’s original designs of the mid 1520s, which he drew onto wooden blocks for engraving by a noted printer of the time, Hans Lützelburger. They are pared-back images in outline with just enough detail and shading to tell their story in a powerful and exceptionally blunt way.

Holbein designed the images in Basle at the height of the Protestant Reformation. Around him in northern Europe corruption and the abuses of the Catholic Church were causing increasing indignation and often violent change. He drew images that reflected the disquiet of the time: a monk clasping his valuables, a cardinal exploiting the poor with the so-called ‘abuses’, a nun serenaded by her lover; each are inexorably led away by Death. There is also socio-political comment. A grimacing and vengeful Death relentlessly comes for the judge that accepts bribery or the senator that ignores the pauper. Holbein’s Death does not miss out those lower down the social scale but he doesn’t leer or caper as he leads away a child, he gently gives his arm to an elderly man and he pushes a plough along for a peasant.

The ‘Dance of Death’ was not a new concept at the time. It appears in medieval folk plays and wall paintings, usually with the skeletal figures dancing around men and women from all backgrounds, reminding them of their mortality, and the need to guard against vanity and corruption. Plague, famine or war was generally around the corner and average life expectancy was short. Stark reminders of death would not have been shocking. The dynamism and storytelling of Holbein’s version however was new. His derision for the vain and corrupt is unusually clear. Paradoxically, Holbein however had his own ambitions, not as an illustrator but as a portrait painter and it led him to England, where he started to work in the same royal and aristocratic circles that he had mocked in his Dance of Death.

Holbein’s Dance of Death is on display in the Ruskin Collection until December, alongside other wood-engravings by Holbein including a Protestant Bible and other biblical imagery.