Chapter Four


The ‘Dance of Death’ series by Hans Holbein the Younger is usually seen as the climax of the theme, which first appeared over a century before in the cloister’s of ‘The Innocents’ in Paris circa 1424-5.  Although the forty one drawings that make up the series were completed in circa 1523-26, it was only in 1538 Lyon that it became published in a book form. Thereafter, it became a popular and successful printed book throughout the 16th century, running into numerous editions (49).

Its success was perhaps due to the novel way in which Holbein treated the various characters.  Unlike earlier representations in which the partners forming a procession, simply appear together against a rather irrelevant background, Holbein individualised the theme by concentrating on small individual groups, as remarked by Davis:

“independent dramas in which Death comes upon his victim in the midst of the latter’s own surroundings and activities” (50 – fig 9)

Gundersheimer said of the series ‘one might say that Holbein’s work synthesised two strands of representation, placing the familiar social types found in the Dance of Death into individual vignettes of Memento Mori’ (51). Grossinger sees Holbein’s version as actually breaking up the ‘Dance of Death’ as Western society becomes increasingly aware of its individuality (52)

Whether or to what extent this series follows the traditional theme, the fact remains that Bruegel must have been very familiar with Holbein’s version (53), as there are several close parallels found in his painting.  Not only are they striking, but they strongly suggest that he used Holbein’s series as a model for isolated scenes.  Take Hobein’s stylised skeletons in The Abbess and Monk seen snatching, tugging and cavorting (figs 10 &11).  Unlike Holbein’s very individualised scenes, Bruegel has turned his horrifying singular images into an army of death, who are seemingly more violent, aggressive and murderous, far surpassing the power of his images (fig 12). Nevertheless the ‘Triumph of Death’ does reflect the character of a ‘Dance of Death’ in illustrating the living being parodied, mocked and taken suddenly without hope or salvation. Despite the very satirical, almost humorous aspects that appear in the lower right corner of Bruegel’s work (fig 13), the rest is clearly a terrifying scene in which rich and poor, old and young are taken by death in a killing frenzy.

The most striking image in the ‘Triumph of Death’ to suggest that Bruegel may have used Holbein’s imagery as a model for his own work, can be best seen in the figure of death banging on the kettledrums in the ‘Bones of all Men’ (55 – fig 14). In Bruegel’s work, this exact image features on the right, on top of what appears to be something of a sinister looking holocaust death-trap (fig 15).  A similar parallel can be drawn in Holbein’s image of ‘The Queen’ in which death can be seen brandishing an hourglass suggesting to her, that her earthly time is at an end and death is eminent (fig 16). This similar image appears closely reminiscent of Bruegel’s image of the king which can seen in the lower left corner (fig 17). The main figures that take part in Bruegel’s ‘Dance of Death’ primarily feature in the foreground in various satirical guises. A cardinal is helped to his fate by death who parodies him by wearing a similar hat to that of his own, a young lover is mocked and mirrored by death who plays a similar instrument. A figure of death dressed in armour can be seen rummaging through a barrel of gold, perhaps mirroring the notorious soldier of fortune. By the banquet table, death dressed in blue serves even death itself, emphasising in a satirical manner the message of ‘memento mori’ remember death! Although it is reasonable to suggest that the ‘Triumph of Death’ reflects characteristics found in the original ‘Dance of Death’, there is something of a clear departure from the traditional scene where the living “skip gingerly” along with death or express a certain naive surprise by death’s sudden presence. Cuttler, said of Bruegel’s painting:

“The Dance of Death is transformed with caustic mockery and united it with the Triumph of Death in encyclopaedia of varieties and possibilities of meeting death”.

Such a sentiment seems closely descriptive of Holbein’s series, only his images are more individualised and less encyclopaedic. Whereas, Holbein maintains a more intimate one on one approach, the ‘Triumph of Death’ in contrast displays a seething mass of terror, destruction and mayhem in what can only be described as an orgy of violence and murder. Nevertheless, Holbein did convey a new violent approach to the ‘Dance of Death’ in which death is brutal, savage and unforgiving (fig 18)  However, to trace the true spirit of haunting terror and unforgiving savagery that is reflected in the ‘Triumph of Death’, one must look to the nightmarish hell scenes in the work of Hieronymus Bosch (fig 8).

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