The Dance Of Death

My skull fixation has led me to some very interesting and often gruesome source material over the last few months, but I have recently come back around to the grandaddy of printed skeletons; The Dance of Death, a set of woodcut prints by Hans Holbein in the sixteenth century.

This set of forty one woodcut illustrations (more were added in later publication and are of doubtful origin) depict Death in a much more predatory guise than more modern characterisations. We often consider Death to be a patient scavenger, biding time and picking up the opportune mishap here and there. In Holbein’s time (1497-1543) Death is an active participant in everyone’s lives, and the series portrays Death (as a skeleton) almost as a drunken uncle at a wedding, leering over the shoulder of all who pose for a picture.

The first print shows the familiar medieval interpretation of the creation, and appropriately lacks any signs of impending mortality:

In fact, Death does not appear as a skeleton until Adam and Eve’s expulsion on plate iii having metamorphosed from the serpent, but takes on a pretty major role from then on:

Death then visits everyone, from the Pope ‘downwards’ and reminds them, mocks them or actively leads them towards their ends.

Ok, enough of the potted history – there are some excellent resources on the interweb and I have included some  links at the end of this post – I am fascinated by these images not only for the skulls, but also for the craftsmanship. I have scanned these and enlarged them deliberately to allow for detailed viewing, but these woodblocks were delicately crafted at just over two and a half inches, that’s a tiny 65mm!

You can see the full set of images and get more factual information on a variety of websites, including 


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