Hans Holbein’s Dances of Death

Now this is interesting but in time to expand on our Halloween theme:

Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497[1] – between 7 October and 29 November 1543) was a German and Swiss artist andprintmaker who worked in a Northern Renaissance style. He is best known as one of the greatest portraitists of the 16th century.[2]He also produced religious art, satire, and Reformation propaganda, and made a significant contribution to the history of book design. He is called “the Younger” to distinguish him from his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, an accomplished painter of the Late Gothic school.

Born in Augsburg, Holbein worked mainly in Basel as a young artist. At first he painted murals and religious works and designed for stained glass windows and printed books. He also painted the occasional portrait, making his international mark with portraits of thehumanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam. When the Reformation reached Basel, Holbein worked for reformist clients while continuing to serve traditional religious patrons. His Late Gothic style was enriched by artistic trends in Italy, France, and the Netherlands, as well as by Renaissance humanism. The result was a combined aesthetic uniquely his own.

The Trechsel Brothers not only published the dance of death, but also an Old Testament with woodcuts by Holbein. It was no secret that Holbein had designed the woodcuts for The Old Testament, and in some of the Bibles and picture books, the Trechsel brothers used the pictures of Creation, Temptation and Fall, the Expulsion from Paradise and Life After the Fall from the dance of death.

The letters are quite small (2.5 x 2.5 cm) and since they are full of details it is sometimes hard to see what’s going on – even when they are enlarged.

Below is the link to the compete letters:


In Holbein’s picture as well as in Basel’s dances of death, one Death is beating the drum and blowing a fife, while the other Death plays the horn. In the background lots of skulls are piled up

The accompanying text for this letter goes: »Wie sy all sterben in Adam also ouch inn Christo werden sy all lebendig gemacht / We / we / we / denen die do wonen vff der erden.«

Holbein's Imagines Mortis: All men's bones
Holbein’s dance of death, the Bones of All Men.

The first part is 1st Corinthians 15,22, which in Luther’s translation goes: »Denn wie sie in Adam alle sterben, so werden sie in Christus alle lebendig gemacht werden«. In English is goes like this: »For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive«. This is where St. Paul introduces his new invention: The Original Sin.

Alphabet by HollarThe second part is from the Revelation 8, 13, which Luther translates thus: »[…] Weh, weh, weh denen, die auf Erden wohnen […]«. In English: »And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe, to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!«. This quote was also used in the dance of death to the right.