Humorous woodcut-cycle with skeletons striking up a Danse macabre
44 Der Doten dantz mit figuren. Clage und Antwort schon von allen staten der welt[Mainz: Jacob Meydenbach, c. 1492]. Second edition of the first German Dance of Death.
2°, 273 x 196 mm. 22 leaves, complete: a-b6 c4 d6.Watermark: Gothic ‘p’ (Piccard VI, 167 and 169), traced in Strasbourg for prints in 1489 (according to von Arnim). – With 42 woodcuts from 41 stocks. Some woodcuts are coloured in orange-red, light orange-yellow, bluish grey, olive and brown-red (15th/16th century).– In all a fine copy. Some slight browning and finger-soiling, three very small tears in the final leaf restored.The condition of some blocks is slightly different to Schramm (618-659), who reprints the Heidelberg edition. A four-line handwritten note at the end of the text (17th/18th century). – Flexible parchment binding of the 20th century using an antiphonary leaf of the 15th century.
PROVENANCE: 1. A handwritten note after the text implies a 17th or 18th-century owner. 2. P. Theodor Tabernigg. 3. Karl & Faber, Auction 119 (Nov. 1969), no. 146; sold to 4. Kistner, Nuremberg. 5. Collection Otto Schäfer, Schweinfurt, OS 751.
TEXT: The ‘Dance of Death’ or ‘Danse Macabre’ has been traced back to the mid-14th century and was connected with mystery plays held in churchyards and also with poetry such as the Vado mori poems. In a time of frequent, destructive epidemics such as the Black Death, a view of the world as mere vanity and of the levelling of all social classes and ranks in death was advanced: mors aequat omnia – death makes all equal from the prelates of the church hierarchy to the meanest lay person, even children.The Dance of Death was both a warning to the powerful and a comfort to the poor, and ultimately an invitation to lead a responsible Christian life.The artistic genre was probably developed in France, the first example being either a fresco in the abbey La Chaise-Dieu (c. 1400- 60), or the destroyed fresco at the Cimetière des Saints Innocents in Paris, painted in 1424, which served as a model for the printed Danse macabre of Guyot Marchant, Paris 1485. During the second half of the 15th century, the Dance of Death enjoyed increasing popularity. Nevertheless, there are only four known German incunable editions, of which very few copies survived. The first edition was printed in Heidelberg c. 1488, being the model for the book at hand (cf. below). In addition to the Heidelberg and Mainz editions, a Low German Dance of Death appeared in Lübeck in 1489 and 1496 with small woodcuts only.
ILLUSTRATION: The Doten dantz mit figuren begins with a woodcut of six cadavers dancing around a dead man in a churchyard, which is repeated as the third illustration. The second shows four skeletons playing music in front of a shop or an ossuary while three others are dancing in an open grave. The band has four lines of text above, the circular dance eight lines. Both pictures show only cadavers and accompany the introduction. 38 woodcuts then show the actual dance of death, and are notable for the fact that most of the skeletons are holding musical instruments. In the last picture, five bodies rise from their graves, and the cycle starts anew. In this Dance of Death clerics and laymen are separated, but in the penultimate picture death dances with a group of characters from various social classes.The special feature of the German Doten dantz is its strong emphasis on music and dance, and in this regard it surpasses all other medieval dances of death. To date we know neither who created this famous Dance of Death, with its striking illustrations, nor, where it was made. As there is no known fresco model it seems likely to have been conceived for a book. Certain features point to the influence of the Paris Danse macabre of 1485. In both editions, for example, Death and his victims talk in eight-line stanzas. A stylistic relationship to the woodcuts for the illustrations of Lichtenberger’s Prognosticatio (published by Knoblochtzer, 1488) is evident. Furthermore, Hind recognized resemblances to both the so-called Ulm Aesop (Johannes Zainer c. 1476) and the frontispiece of Meydenbach’s Hortus Sanitatis (1491). The first edition of this German Dance of Death was printed by Heinrich Knoblochtzer in Heidelberg (Goff T-408), no later than 1488. For his reprint of 1492, Meydenbach bought the 41 blocks from Knoblochtzer, though he put the woodcuts in a different order. Eventually, Schobser in Munich used the blocks for a reprint after 1500, only two copies of which survived.
PRINTER: For various reasons, we may assume that Jakob Meydenbach learned the art of printing from Gutenberg. He was said to have been the son of a woodcutter who in spring 1444 had followed Gutenberg from Strasbourg to Mainz.The output of Meydenbach’s press remained comparatively small, and only nine titles are known to have left his press, beginning with the Hortus sanitatis (H 8944) in 1491. Some books are from 1492 and his last is dated 30 March 1495 (H 7941). In addition to the Dance of Death woodblocks, he also acquired the blocks for his edition of Lichtenberger’s Prognosticatio by Knoblochtzer (1492). All of Meydenbach’s printings are extremely rare and have survived in only a very few copies.
RARITY: Extremely rare, only five copies are known worldwide, less than of Knoblochtzer’s first edition (ISTC: seven copies, two of them imperfect). The other four examples of our edition are preserved in the libraries of London, Munich and Berlin (Kupferstichkabinett) and in the Bodmer Collection.
LITERATURE: Facsimile: Munich 1925; Hain/Copinger 1895, 3733 (“Strassburg 1485”); BMC I, p. 45; Schreiber 5373; Geldner 1968, p. 42 and 266f.; Bodmer 1976, no. 268; Arnim 1984, no. 337; BSB-Ink T-399; exh. cat.Wolfenbüttel 2000, no. 1; GW M47259; ISTC it00408300. Cf. Schramm XV, pp. 6-7, fig. 618-659; Fairfax-Murray, German, no. 414; Kaiser 1982.