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Master IAM of Zwolle (around 1440-1504), Allegory of the Transience of Life, coloured engraving on vellum
The Netherlands, about AD 1480-90
Ferdinand Columbus owned an impression of this print
Printmakers during the fifteenth century often produced prints that reflected on the nature of life. They reminded the viewer that all earthly glories and ambitions are futile, that Death is the final arbiter and one's actions on earth have repercussions for the afterlife. This engraving is a particularly confronting treatment of the subject. In the centre, Moses holds the Tablets of the Law to emphasise that the Ten Commandments are the only true guide to salvation. Below, in a tomb, a corpse decomposes and turns into a skeleton.
An impression of this print was part of the now-lost collection of Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539), son of Christopher Columbus. An inventory in Seville describes in careful detail 3,204 prints that once formed part of this outstanding library, which at the time of his death contained 15,000 volumes. Although Ferdinand's print collection has now vanished, the Seville inventory has allowed its partial reconstruction using other impressions of the prints from around the world.
M. McDonald, Ferdinand Columbus: Renaissanc (London, British Museum Press, 2005)