HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger
(b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London)

The Rich Man; The Queen

Woodcut, 64 x 48 mm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The picture shows two illustrations for The Dance of Death.

The Dance of Death was a recurrent theme in the literature, art, and drama of the Middle Ages. In one form or another, it continued well into the Renaissance, finding expression in frightening and macabre imagery that is only occasionally lightened by touches of humour. The approach of Death, almost always personified by the skeleton, was anticipated by the masses, for they had seen recurring plagues carry off family and friends. Thus, the poor found consolation only in the fact that Death was the great equalizer who spared no one. The message of most of the illustrations emphasizes this point: kings and queens, laymen and clergy, good folk and evil, wise men and fools are all approached by Death.

It remained for Holbein to bring this theme a lightness of touch, an elegance that extends to the very engraving of the wood blocks. The prints are miniature in format, and though each one tells its story dramatically, there are also charming details of a decorative nature - the interiors of rooms in private homes, convents, or castles. Holbein drew the designs, and a brilliant craftsman, Hans Lützelburger, is credited with the cutting of the blocks.

Holbein's subtle sense of humour is revealed in the episode of Death and the rich man. Since for the rich the loss of wealth is a "fate worse than death," Holbein shows the bewildered owner left untouched by the skeleton - who makes off with his gold, not his soul.

In the other episode, Death is coming for the Queen. All her soldiers and courtiers cannot protect the terrified young woman, healthy and in the prime of her life, from her doom. The encounter takes place in the open, before a background that includes a pseudo-Classical building, a view of trees, sky, and a distant town.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.