HOLBEIN, Hans. Dance of Death by Hans Holbein. Enlarged Facsimiles of the original wood engravings by Hans Lutzelberger in the first complete edition: Lyons 1547. Privately printed by hand by Arthur K. Sabin at The Temple Sheen Press, 1916.
8vo., original blue paper covered boards with paper spine label, handmade paper; 49 engravings by Lutzelberger; pp. x, unpaginated, ; a little rubbing and soiling to boards, otherwise a very good, partially unopened copy.
Limited edition of 250 copies. With a Preface by Frederick Evans.
Holbein’s Dance of Death is seen by many as a triumph of Renaissance woodblock printing. In each of the forty-nine scenes, death intrudes on the various lives of all levels of society – from the Pope to the Ploughman – each with their own special treatment. Thus the knight is skewered with a lance, the duchess is dragged away by her feet and the sailor’s mast is snapped in two. In each scene, the motif of an hourglass can be found, signifying the approaching end.
The book may be interpreted as part of the contemporaneous rise of Protestantism with its implicit judgement against indulgence and excess. The year before, Holbein had illustrated Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German, and was therefore working close to the heart of Church reform. Thus we see the Abbott being dragged off by his cassock, and death reserves two demons and two skeletons to see the Pope himself. In contrast, the poor are relieved from the duty of their lives; death seems to come to the aid of the ploughman and spare him from the burden of tilling the soil.
Holbein drew the woodcuts between 1523 and 1525, while in his twenties and based in the Swiss town of Basel. It would be another decade before he established himself in England, where he painted his most enduring masterpiece The Ambassadors. His achievement is even greater when one considers the miniature scale in he was drawing. The original work consisted of 41 small woodcuts (65x50 mm in size).
The blocks were cut by Hans Lützelburger, a frequent and highly skilled collaborator of Holbein’s. Lützelburger had cut forty-one blocks and had ten remaining when Death surprised him too. The blocks were then sold to creditors, and eventually printed and published for the first time in Lyons in 1538. Since the book’s great success the book has never been out of print, and has inspited writers and artists from Rubens in Flanders to Dickens in England.