In this scene from Holbein's Dance of Death, a merchant attempts to protect his worldly goods including a handful of coins, even as death seizes him.
This section consists of a rich collection of beautiful woodcuts and illustrations of the dance of death by the medieval German artist Hans Holbein. The dance of death was a stylized depiction of death as the ever present companion of life. Usually the figure of death was personified as a skeleton dancing his victim to their deaths.
The Dance of Death is an important literary and visual allegory serving as a reminder of the transitory nature of human life as well as the idea that no matter your standing in this world, you would eventually dance the dance of death. As such it was used as an inspiration and subject by many artists, some known and others anonymous. Although the details varied, the concept was the same and provided a continuous thread and theme through the art of the middle ages and the Renaissance, and even today.
Two skeletons invite two upper class ladies to join them in a final dance. The woman on the right attempts to refuse, but no one can avoid this dance.
Hans Holbein would mine this rich theme of allegory which illuminates the human condition on several occasions. The first was a design for a sword sheathe, emblazoned with images from the dance of death. The second time was to create an alphabet based on figures and images from the dance of death. Finally, Holbein's masterpiece was the creation of a series of woodcuts depicting various types of Renaissance people - beggars, churchmen, emperors, and children - meeting their doom. In his conception, some danced willingly, while others resisted, but in the end all danced with the Grim Reaper death's tune.
In this scene from the dance of death, a soldier in armor attempts to fight of death with his sword. A grim reaper skeleton engages him in a duel, using a bone as a club. There can be no doubt what the outcome of this dance will be.
The series of woodcuts created by Hans Holbein are generally regarded as representing the pinnacle of artistic depiction of the dance of death, at least during Renaissance period. These illustrations can be viewed here, in the same sequence as they appeared in the original series of woodcuts.
In the near future we will also be adding other versions of the dance of death, depicted and imagined by other artists including Thomas Rowlandson.