Holbein’s Dance of Death

In the dance of death, an allegory common in medieval and Renaissance Europe, a skeleton “dances” with all members of society—from pope to peasant—as a reminder of their inevitable earthly demise. Depicted in church and cemetery murals as well as prayer-book illustrations, the motif was a positive and sympathetic prompt to prepare for a Christian death. This perspective on mortality relates such imagery to portraiture, which aimed to capture and preserve an individual’s likeness at a fleeting moment in time.

The creation of printed images was typically a collaboration between an artist who composed the illustrations and a blockcutter who transferred these drawings into a printable medium, such as woodcut. In the early 1520s, the Basel blockcutter Hans Lützelburger was commissioned to produce dance of death imagery for a new book, The Images of Death, and he turned to Holbein for the compositions. Holbein and Lützelburger’s designs transformed the traditional medieval series of stiff figures in two-dimensional settings into three-dimensional genre scenes full of allusions to contemporary life. As with his portraits, Holbein used specific emblems and objects to represent various members of society as Death leads them—passively, comically, or mockingly— in the dance.