Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death, a series of forty-one miniature woodcuts, was produced between 1523 and 1525 and constituted the largest sequence devoted to this theme created during the Renaissance. Many of the various figures depicted call attention to the folly of greed and pride; together they show the triumph of death over all humankind, whether peasant or pope. In her commentary, included in a new edition of The Dance published by Penguin Classics, the Cambridge historian Ulinka Rublack observes that the depictions were intensely engaged with the politics of Holbein’s day. “In Holbein’s world,” she writes, “the question of who could hold an office justly was linked to debates about corruption.” Here is Rublack’s description of The Lawyer:
This figure is shown in the middle of a town openly accepting payment by the well-dressed man with his large money bag, while the poor, alarmingly slim and fragile-looking man simply folds his hands to pray in the background. Once more Holbein’s point is that open corruption is the norm and no fair law exists. Death lifts the hourglass as if to ring an alarm bell and alert people to such injustice.
Hans Holbein: The Dance of Death, with a new commentary by Ulinka Rublack, has just been published by Penguin Classics.