Hans Holbein the Younger, The Rich Man, a woodcut

Germany, proof print before AD 1526, first published AD 1538

From the series Dance of Death

The Dance of Death is the most celebrated series of woodcuts designed by Hans Holbein the Younger. The set in The British Museum is one of a number of good-quality impressions issued without text. The woodcut was cut by Hans Lützelburger, one of the most distinguished specialists (formschneiders) of the time, in the years immediately before his death in 1526.

The images show Death escorting people from all walks of life to their final destiny. These include, for example, a ploughman, the Emperor, a child, a noblewoman, a bride and bridegroom, an abbot and a jester. At the time, images were often used to teach moral principles. The implied message is that we must live our lives virtuously and always be prepared, since Death visits without warning. Here, Death takes first what the rich man loves most - his money. Iron bars, stone walls and strongboxes are no defence. His candle has burnt down, and the hourglass indicates that his time has run out.

The theme of the 'Dance of Death' (Totentanz in German) appeared in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in mural paintings, stained glass windows, wooden carvings, metalwork, woodcuts, engravings, and printed books. It was also a subject of literary tracts. The preoccupation with mortality was partly due to the highly visible nature of death, especially in the years following the Black Death. Holbein's version was very influential, and often copied.

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More information

Bibliography

G. Bartrum, German Renaissance prints, 149, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)

D. Landau and P. Parshall, The Renaissance print 1470-155 (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1994)

Dimensions

Height: 74.000 mm
Width: 56.000 mm

Museum number

PD 1895-1-22-817

PPA56290

Gift of William Mitchell

Location

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