Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dos-A-Dos With Death on the Dance Floor in Basel, 1621

by Stephen J. Gertz


While Halloween has come and gone it's wise to remember that for death and the macabre every day's a morbid holiday, the Grim Reaper parties all-year long, and that no amount of Jack o' Lanterns will keep Thanatos from your door when he's in the mood to mambo and imbibe in a goblin's goblet of your blood with a festive, À votre santé! to your extinguished health.


In 1621, Matthäus Merian, a Swiss-born engraver living in Frankfurt,  published Todten-Tantz, The Dance of Death, his engraved recreation of the famous mural at Basel. Death is promiscuous, in forty-two copperplates visiting  an ossuary, preacher, the Pope, Emperor, Bishop, King, Empress, Duke, Duchess, Count, Abbot, Nobleman, Noblewoman, physician, Senator, Canon, lawyer, merchant, Abbess, cripple, hermit, herald, young man, usurer, young woman, peddler, blind man, Jew, peasant, heathen, heathen woman, cook, painter, mother and child, Adam and Eve, merchant, fool, etc. No one is spared a pas de deux with the afterlife's escort when the bell tolls and you're down for the eternal count.


According to his preface to 1649 edition, Merian drew a copy of the Basel dance of death mural, originally painted c. 1449, thirty-three years previously,  in 1616, apparently based upon Emanuel Bock's (son of Hans Bock) restoration of the mural from 1614 to 1616.  


He used those drawings as the basis for these famous copperplates, sold or given to his cousin Johann Jakob Merian. The plates were published twice in 1621, and in 1625.

In 1649, the year before he died, Merian bought the plates back,  revising them  and adding sky and clouds. He added two extra copperplates (Memento Mori and double portrait) and a few  articles of Christian edification.


The 1649 edition contained a summary of the mural's history by Merian, yet though he had been a resident of Frankfurt for many years, the original mural was nearly 200 years old and much of what was known had been lost  to history. His account, then, is somewhat unreliable.

Matthäus Merian's version of the Basel Dance of Death is considered the most complete and reliable representation; Huldrich Frölich's edition of 1588 is poor, his woodcuts simply free interpretations of Hans Holbein's Dance of Death, while Emanuel Büchel's 1773 version suffers from his having seen the mural more than a hundred years later after several renovations and with parts of the mural decayed  by time and the elements.

Adam and Eve.

Merian learned the art of copperplate engraving in Zürich. He then worked and studied in Strasbourg, Nancy, and Paris, before returning to Basel in 1615. The following year he moved to Frankfurt, Germany where he worked for publisher Johann Theodor de Bry, who was the son of renowned engraver and traveler, Theodor de Bry.

He married publisher de Bry's daughter, a gambit rarely used by authors in search of publication but probably should be, as long as eyes are wide-open. It beats an unsolicited submission landing on the publisher's slush pile yet may require solicited submission to the spouse lest they grouse to daddy, the marriage contract a binding codicil to the publisher's, thus answering the average writer's plaintive, rhetorical cry through the ages, Who do I have to f*** to get my book published?

Merian's Todten-Tantz is near impossible to find in seventeenth century editions. The last copy of this, the 1725 edition, with all engravings hand-colored, to come to auction was over twenty years ago at Christie's, June 26, 1991, when it sold for $18, 040.

The copy under notice is being offered at Ketterer Kunst Auktions in Hamburg at their November 21, 2011 sale. It is estimated to sell for $22,070, in my view a low-ball figure.

MERIAN, Matthäus [the Elder, 1593-1650]. Todten-Tantz [Dance of Death], wie derselbe in der löblichen und weitberühmten Stadt Basel, als ein Spiegel menschlicher Beschaffenheit gantz künstlich gemahlet und zu sehen ist.  Franckfurt am Mayn, John B. Andreae and H. Hort, 1725.  Eighth edition, originally published 1621, with subsequent editions in 1625, 1649, 1696, and 1698. Quarto. 198 pp. Titlepage borders and forty-two hand-colored copperplate engravings. Text engravings, including forty with different architectural enclosure in watercolor by an 18th century hand.

Wüthrich III, 391. Vgl. Massmann S. 78: 8. Oppermann 1126.

Images courtesy of Ketterer Kunst Auktions, with our thanks, with the exception of the Lawyer, Merchant, and Adam and Eve, which are courtesy of Dodedans, where a complete suite of all forty-two of the Merian copperplates, alas uncolored but for these, can be found.

Of related interest:

Dancing With Death: A Scottish Doctor's Macabre Obsession.

The Rare Book That Turned Elizabeth I Into a Queen.

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