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The Dance of Death   By: (1510-1568)

Book cover

First Page:

The Dance of Death

by Hans Holbein, with an

introductory note by

Austin Dobson


Copyright, 1903, by SCOTT THAW COMPANY

The Heintzemann Press, Boston


=The Book=

" Les Simulachres & Historiées Faces de la Mort avtant elegamtment pourtraictes, que artificiellement imaginées. " This may be Englished as follows: The Images and Storied Aspects of Death, as elegantly delineated as [they are] ingeniously imagined. Such is the literal title of the earliest edition of the famous book now familiarly known as " Holbein's Dance of Death. " It is a small quarto , bearing on its title page, below the French words above quoted, a nondescript emblem with the legend Vsus me Genuit , and on an open book, Gnothe seauton . Below this comes again, " A Lyon, Soubz l'escu de Coloigne : M. D. XXXVIII," while at the end of the volume is the imprint " Excvdebant Lvgdvni Melchoir et Gaspar Trechsel fratres: 1538 ," the Trechsels being printers of German origin, who had long been established at Lyons. There is a verbose "Epistre" or Preface in French to the " moult reuerende Abbesse du religieux conuent S. Pierre de Lyon, Madame Iehanne de Touszele ," otherwise the Abbess of Saint Pierre les Nonnains, a religious house containing many noble and wealthy ladies, and the words, " Salut d'un vray Zèle ," which conclude the dedicatory heading, are supposed to reveal indirectly the author of the "Epistre" itself, namely, Jean de Vauzelles, Pastor of St. Romain and Prior of Monrottier, one of three famous literary brothers in the city on the Rhone, whose motto was " D'un vray Zelle ." After the Preface comes " Diuerses Tables de Mort, non painctes, mais extraictes de l'escripture saincte, colorées par Docteurs Ecclesiastiques, & umbragées par Philosophes ." Then follow the cuts, forty one in number, each having its text from the Latin Bible above it, and below, its quatrain in French, this latter being understood to be from the pen of one Gilles Corozet. To the cuts succeed various makeweight Appendices of a didactic and hortatory character, the whole being wound up by a profitable discourse, De la Necessite de la Mort qui ne laisse riens estre pardurable . Various editions ensued to this first one of 1538, the next or second of 1542 (in which Corozet's verses were translated into Latin by Luther's brother in law, George Oemmel or Aemilius), being put forth by Jean and François Frellon, into whose hands the establishment of the Trechsels had fallen. There were subsequent issues in 1545, 1547, 1549, 1554, and 1562. To the issues of 1545 and 1562 a few supplementary designs were added, some of which have no special bearing upon the general theme, although attempts, more or less ingenious, have been made to connect them with the text. After 1562 no addition was made to the plates.

=The Artist=

From the date of the editio princeps it might be supposed that the designs were executed at or about 1538 the year of its publication. But this is not the case; and there is good evidence that they were not only designed but actually cut on the wood some eleven years before the book itself was published. There are, in fact, several sets of impressions in the British Museum, the Berlin Museum, the Basle Museum, the Imperial Library at Paris, and the Grand Ducal Cabinet at Carlsruhe, all of which correspond with each other, and are believed to be engraver's proofs from the original blocks. These, which include every cut in the edition of 1538, except "The Astrologer," would prove little of themselves as to the date of execution. But, luckily, there exists in the Cabinet at Berlin a set of coarse enlarged drawings in Indian ink, on brownish paper, of twenty three of the series. These are in circular form; and were apparently intended as sketches for glass painting. That they are copied from the woodcuts is demonstrable, first, because they are not reversed as they would have been if they were the originals; and, secondly, because one of them, No... Continue reading book >>

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