Les simulacres de la Mort

death and old man

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Copyright (textes)
1996-2014 © Patrick Pollefeys

In 1538, Hans Holbein the Younger publishes his Dance of death, a work of art that will redefine its own genre. In Holbein's work, Death is still very aggressive; however, it does not dance with the deads anymore, but intervenes directly in scenes of everyday life. Paris' dance of death had dominated the genre in the late Middle-Ages; from 1538 on, the work of Holbein became the ultimate reference. The series of 41 wood engravings was created around 1526 and published 12 years later in Basle. Holbein was not the first to use the woodcut technique instead of the traditional fresco to create a dance of death. But as he changed the medium, Holbein altered the work's didactic goal. From now on, people would learn the dance of death's lessons alone, reading a book, and more rarely in a group, looking together at big frescoes. The composition of the dance of death changes: Death does not lead a farandole anymore, but intervenes in various moments of everyday life. Holbein lived at the time of the Reformation and peasants' rebellions (1524, south of present day Germany). His humanistic beliefs show through in his work, in which Death is turned into a dispenser of justice, denouncing greediness and the abuse of power. The first four engravings, scenes from the Genesis, are followed by a group of skeletons playing music. The dance begins with the pope and goes on with 34 other victims. An engraving representing the Last Judgment and another one showing the armorial bearings of Death close the series.

Death is introduced when Adam and Eve are driven out of Paradise. Outside, Death stands triumphantly: from now on, all men will die. In his dance of death, Holbein frequently uses the sand glass as a symbol for the passage of time. The sand glass appears for the first time in a scene from the Genesis: Adam tills the soil (with the help of Death), while Eve suckles Cain. 25 out of the 35 victims are represented with a sand glass.

Holbein's anticlerical feelings show through in several pictures, like the one with the pope. This character is not aware that Death has come to take him during the most prestigious moment of his career: the crowning of an emperor. Two devils symbolizing the temptation of vanity are also present. Death also arrives while the cardinal, is selling indulgences. The bishop looks confused whereas Death takes him by the hand to guide him through a herd of sheep. Death grasps the monk while he tries to flee with his possessions, although he has vowed to stay poor. The most ironic of all the engravings is the one with the nun. While praying in her richly decorated room, she throws a concupiscent glance at her lover. Death intervenes by extinguishing a candle on the altar: an obvious symbol for the nun's destiny... Such representations roused the laughter of the common people, but also the hatred and the anger of the clergy. However, neither the preacher nor the priest attract Holbein's sarcasms. In cities as well as in countrysides, the lower class of the clergy sympathized with the poors. They were very far from the wealth and ostentation of the clerical elite. Holbein's sympathy for the paupers particularly shows when they face the indifference of the richs. The duke pushes back a woman and her child. The lawyer receives fees from a rich customer; they hardly worry about the poor near them. A devil symbolizing the temptation of greediness is perched on the shoulders of the senator, who ignores the beggar behind him. Holbein shows sometimes a subtle sense of humour: Death grabs the rich man's money before stealing his soul.

Justice and sciences also undergo Holbein's criticism. Death takes the emperor his crown, whereas a peasant begs his Highness in vain to do him justice. The emperor carries a broken sword that shows well he does not have the capacity to make a right decision. In another picture, Death is on the verge of stealing the judge's baton, symbol of his duty. The judge, who is getting bribed by a rich man, is unaware of that. Money has more weight than rightfulness in the balance of justice... And the less wealthy man always loses his case. Death puts itself between the doctor and his patient. Holbein seems to say that despite of all the doctor's skilfulness, medicine cannot prevent what cannot be prevented: sooner or later, he will die, as well as his patients.

The knight, the nobleman and the count, who have been victorious in great battles (generally against simple peasants...), now face a much more dangerous opponent, an invincible one: Death. The nobleman valiantly tries to fight, but the coffin lying at his feet is an obvious symbol for the outcome of the duel. Death easily transfixes the knight with his own spear. And the count runs away while Death, disguised as a peasant, tears off his coat of arms.

Nevertheless, Death is not always represented as a dispenser of justice. It is cruel when it kidnaps a child and takes him away from his family. In a strange way, Death sometimes play the role of a friend or a servant: as with Adam, it helps the farmerto plough his field. It pours water, so the king can wash his hands before the meal. It solemnly attends the old man and the old woman to their last sleep.

Finally, with The Last Judgment, Holbein reminds us that redemption and resurrection is always possible with the help of Jesus Christ. The men and women who believe in Him can overcome Death.

Here is the list of the 41 woodcuts from Holbein's dance of death (the biblical quotations in latin that accompanied the pictures are not available):

La danse macabre d'Holbein
les gravures proviennent de l'édition de 1542
1- The creation
2- The temptation
3- Expulsion of Adam and Eve
4- Adam tills the soil
5- Bones of all men
6- The pope
7- The emperor
8- The king
9- The cardinal
10- The empress
11- The queen
12- The bishop
13- the duke
14- The abbot 15- The abbess
16- The nobleman
17- The canon
18- The judge
19- The advocate
20- The senator
21- The preacher
22- The priest
23- The monk
24- The nun
25- The old woman
26- The physician
27- The astrologer
28- The rich man
29- The merchant
30- The seaman
31- The knight
32- The count
33- The old man
34- The countess
35- The noblewoman
36- The duchess
37- The peddler
38- The ploughman
39- The child
40- The Last Judgment
41- The escutcheon of Death

In 1545, a new edition of Holbein's dance of death was published in Lyon, some new figures stepped into the dance. These new characters were probably not drawn by Holbein; an unknown artist must have added them to the original work. Between the child and the Last Judgment appear for the first time:
- A soldier fighting Death. Dead warriors are lying at their feet. At the back of the scene, a skeleton is playing drums on a battlefield.
- Death and a demon attacking together a gambler.
- Death pouring wine into the throat of a drunkard.
- A skeleton pulling the fool by his clothes while playing bagpipe.
- Death preventing the brigrand from robbing an old lady, as if he were a hero.
- Death grasping the cane of a blind man to guide him.
- Death breaking the cart of the waggoner, who can't do anything to stop it.
- A sick man begging on the street (Death doesn't appear on this picture). These character was previouslt published ine another edition in 1545.
- Four woodcuts representing putti (Italian for "angels").

In 1562, another edition was printed in Lyon, which included four more woodcuts. Between the ploughman and the child appear:
- Some putti.
- The fiancée dancing in the arms of Death, while a troubadour plays music for them.
- The fiancé
- And some more putti!

This edition also included the 12 pictures first printed in 1547. With its 57 woodcuts, it was the biggest dance of death ever created. Holbein also created an alphabet of Death and a gagger sheath with a dance of Death on it. to have a look on more explanation on this, follow this link.