Bilder des Todes (The Dance of Death) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1538)

Ah, Hallowe’en: the one time of the year we can legitimately spend a shedload of hard-earned moula on sweets and plastic crap in Poundland in the collective effort to convince ourselves that we are totally fine with the fact we will one day all die. Bilder Des Todes is Hans Holbein’s take on our ancestors’ own  sophisticated coping mechanism for this primal existential crisis, the Dance of Death/Danse Macabre, a common Late Middle Ages allegory on the universality of death designed to remind us that earthly glories are vain while life is so fragile.

Produced as forty-one woodcuts in 1526 and first published as a book in 1538, Holbein reboots the usual format of the Dance of Death – Death as a demented Pied Piper initiating a threatening conga by interrupting the quotidien business of people high and low, from the Pope to the Ploughman, to lead them on a jig along to the grave. Instead it is a reformist satire, and so is a convenient nod to another 31 October anniversary: that day in 1517 when Martin Luther got all confused when out trick or treating and, instead of knocking on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg to request Haribos, nailed his 95 Theses and thus started the Reformation.

Closer analysis reveals how Holbein uses his pictures to call out the society he lives in – the judge taking a bribe, the lawyer ignoring a pauper – but for light relief you can try to spot a chunky baby, breastfeeding Eve, and a skeleton banging a drum with particular swagger. It’s a treat. Happy Hallowe’en!

 

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The Duke. Note the chubby legs of the little baby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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