30 etched plates of 33, numbered 1-30, on wove, 75 x 55mm, London: J. Coxhead, 1816
An attractive set of engravings of the famous Dance of Death.
The Dance of Death series displays a very quick and lively skeleton leading someone away in a dance step. The partner’s social station is instantly recognizable, but death is indifferent to rank: the death figure is just as cheerful leading off the Queen or the Pope as the Merchant or the Beggar. While the conventions may have originated in Medieval Pageants, their popularity grew and flourished in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Basel in Switzerland hosted a thriving printing industry, and the Dance of Death series painted in fresco in the 15th century on the walls of the Predigerkirche, influenced several printed editions, notably Holbein’s. The frescoes were destroyed (deemed “an eyesore” by the town council) in 1805.
These plates by Hollar may not be after Holbein’s, but rather copies of Arnold Birkmann. Birkmann’s woodcuts often differ from Holbein’s original cuts, by adding buildings in the background and including Death’s hourglass in those where Holbein has “forgotten” it. It is speculated that Hollar couldn’t afford genuine Holbein prints but it is more likely he consciously preferred the Birkmann version. Hollar was in turn copied by Thomas Neale and David Deuchar, among others.
Wencelaus Hollar was a Bohemian etcher whose work includes some 400 drawings and 3000 etchings. After studying in Frankfurt under engraver and publisher Matthaus Merian, he moved to Strasbourg, and then Cologne. Here he attracted the attention of the collector Thomas, Earl of Arundel, with whom he was associated for most of his life. The range of his work covers, from views and landscapes to portraits, ships and religious figures, provides a rich source of information about the 17th century. Collections of Hollar’s work are kept in the British Museum, Windsor Castle, The Fisher Library in Toronto, and the National Gallery in Prague.