The Dance of Death before Holbein
Paintings and book decorations illustrating Death as a figure interacting with people were well known in Holbein’s time. Images pairing Death with an individual were utilized to decorate books of hours, such as the Book of Hours, Paris, 1523. Paintings known by the name “Dance of Death” first appeared in Europe on city walls, commonly in cemeteries. These murals are described in written accounts as consisting of a single image depicting one or more figures of Death leading a procession of people from all walks of life, religious and secular, in descending order of social status. One famed mural was found in Basel, Switzerland, where Holbein lived when he created his woodcuts. The engravings in the seventeenth-century Todten-Tantz of Matthaeus Merian are purported to copy the figures from that wall. Comparing Holbein’s woodcuts — as seen in the images featured in Holbein's Sequence— with Merian's engravings may reveal his innovations and contributions to the genre.