'Totentanz'. Translation: 'The Emperor'. 'The King'. 

Hans Holbein the Younger (Hans Holbein dem Jüngeren) was an early 16th-century German painter and printmaker. As a painter, he is most famous for his portraits of Thomas More (1527), Desiderius Erasmus (1523), Henry VIII (1537, 1540) and the controversial depiction of the king's new bride Anne van Cleef (1539), which was direct cause for Henry VIII having the marriage annulled and his trusty secretary Thomas Cromwell executed. Holbein also made the iconic group portrait 'The Ambassadors' (1533). Like his father, Hans Holbein the Elder, Holbein the Younger also made a sequential illustrated narrative, 'Totentanz' ('Dance of Death', 1523-1526), which can be considered a prototypical comic. Together with Lucas Cranach the Elder's 'Passional Christi und Antichristi' (1521), it is also the earliest known prototypical graphic novel. 'Totentanz' follows the Grim Reaper as a protagonist, taking away people from all layers of society. The work was intended as Lutheran propaganda and also offers satire of early 16th-century European society. Together with Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jeremias GathCaspar KrebsGeorg KressBartholomäus KäppelerHans Rogel the ElderHans Rogel the Younger, Erhard Schön, Johann Schubert, Hans Schultes the Elder, Lucas SchultesElias Wellhöfer, and his own father, Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger is one of the earliest German prototypical comic artists who left us with a signature.

Drawing inside 'In Praise of Folly'.

Early life and work
Hans Holbein the Younger was born in 1497 in Augsburg, nowadays located in Bayern, Germany, but back then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was the son of famous painter Hans Holbein the Elder and the younger brother of Ambrosius Holbein, who also became an engraver and printmaker. In 1516, following accusations of tax fraud, Holbein the Elder fled Augsburg in favor of Issenheim, Alsace. Soon after, his own brother Sigismund sued him, prompting the Holbeins to move again, this time to the Swiss city of Basel. Both Ambrosius and Hans Holbein the Younger were trained by painter Hans Herbster and started a career as woodcut/metalcut designers for printers.

One of the earliest notable works by the brothers were a series of pen drawings made for preacher Oswald Myconius in his copy of Desiderius Erasmus' 'Lof der Zotheid' ('In Praise of Folly'). In the early 16th century, Erasmus' book was a genuine bestseller, amusing readers with his witty reflections on society. The Holbeins' drawings are notable for their cartoony style. Through Myconius, the drawings also reached Erasmus himself, who liked them well enough to receive a personal copy. Holbein the Younger would maintain a lifelong friendship with Erasmus. He also made two famous portraits of the philosopher, which are still often reprinted in history books and remain his definitive visualisations. One depicts Erasmus writing ('Erasmus of Rotterdam Writing', 1523), the other is a frontal portrait, with Erasmus' hands resting on a book ('Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam', 1523).

'Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam', 1523

In 1517, Holbein and his father painted murals for Jakob von Hertenstein, a local merchant in another Swiss town, Luzern. Holbein Jr. additionally designed stained glass windows. By 1519, Holbein the Younger moved back to Basel, where he married and had four children. Thanks to his father's fame, he received many commissions for paintings, murals, stained glass windows and woodcut illustrations for books.

Around this time, Lutheranism swept Europe and its religious reforms divided the continent. Roman Catholic authorities tried to suppress the movement, but some countries, like the Holy Roman Empire, actually adapted Lutheran ideas. This was also reflected in Holbein's works, like the notable painting 'The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb' (1521-1522). The work doesn't romanticize Jesus' dead body, but depicts him as an actual emaciated corpse, with the effects of his torture and starvation still visible. Holbein also illustrated woodcuts that promoted Lutheran ideas and criticized the Roman Catholic Church. Other 16th-century German artists who made Lutheran propaganda were Erhard Schön and Lucas Cranach the Elder.

'The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb' (1520s).

The English years
Between 1526 and 1528, Hans Holbein the Younger lived in England. At the English royal court, he met writer Thomas More, nowadays most famous for his novel 'Utopia'. More had heard from Holbein through his correspondence with Erasmus and wanted to meet him. In 1527, Holbein also immortalized More in an iconic painting. During his stay in England, Holbein made additional portraits of Archbishop William Warham of Canterbury and various members of the British royal court. In August 1528, Holbein returned to Basel, but the town was now divided between supporters of Lutheranism and another Protestant movement, Zwinglianism. This caused tremendous tensions, of which the acclaimed painter wasn't spared. In 1530, he was summoned to the city council to explain why he hadn't attended the reformed communion. On top of this, if it didn't conform with any of the latest religious teachings, his work was now scrutinized, criticized and even vandalized. Although Holbein was still in demand as an artist, the fundamentalist climate and creative oppression made him return to England in 1532, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Still, his new home country was also subject of religious fanaticism and inflammable authorities. In 1533, Henry VIII divorced his wife, just to marry another woman. Since the Roman Catholic Church prohibited divorce, the monarch was promptly excommunicated. The king therefore established his own new Christian religion, Anglicanism, and had the Archbishop of Canterbury sanctify his new marriage with Anne Boleyn. Boleyn became Holbein's patron. She commissioned many portraits until she fell out of favor with her husband in 1536. Henry VIII accused her of witchcraft and had her beheaded. This however had little effect on Holbein's career. The same year, he was named one of the official royal court painters, while Royal Secretary Thomas Cromwell became his new patron. Some of Holbein's most famous paintings were made during his period, including his group portrait 'The Ambassadors' (1533), depicting French royal ambassador Jean de Dinteville and the Bishop of Lavaur, Georges de Selve. Holbein's 'Portrait of Henry VIII' (1537), depicts the monarch standing with his feet planted apart, and another portrait shows him from the waist up (1540). Both have become the defining images of this controversial king.

Holbein's legendary portrait of Anne van Cleef.

Since Henry VIII married six times during his lifetime, he often searched for noblewomen with the potential of becoming his bride. In a time when photography hadn't been invented and travelling was time-consuming and expensive, reports about faraway bridal candidates were based on hearsay or written descriptions. For a visual representation, painters were commissioned to travel to these women in question, portray them as accurately as possible and then bring the portrait back to the court. Holbein, for instance, took a voyage to the Holy Roman Empire (nowadays Germany), to paint Anne of Cleves. When Henry VIII saw the canvas, he greenlighted his upcoming marriage with Anne. However, on the wedding day, the king was shocked to learn that his bride wasn't as attractive as he had assumed. He still married her, but they never consummated the marriage and he soon divorced her. Henry VIII blamed Cromwell, who had recommended Anne to him, and had him beheaded. Over the centuries, the scandal led to the incorrect assumption that either Anne was grotesquely ugly, or that Holbein's portrait was a complete failure. In reality, all people of noble blood expected their court painters to make flattering portraits, leaving out everything that would make them look ugly. In many cases, the finished portraits only bore a passing resemblance to the real-life person. Also, nobody but king Henry has ever written negatively about Anne van Cleef's physical features. Since modern-day audiences only have Holbein's romanticized painting of Anne to base their opinion on, we can only guess where the truth lies.

Final years and death
Hans Holbein the Younger remained in demand as a painter for the rich and famous, but was never directly commissioned by the king again. He died in October/November 1543 in London, presumably of an illness.

Panel from 'Totentanz'. The scene depicts Adam and Eve after their expulsion from Paradise. Eve is taking care of a child, while Adam is plowing the fields as part of God's eternal punishment. Apart from being labor-intensive, the work is also dangerous, so Death is already at mankind's side. 

Dance of Death
In 1523, Holbein the Younger started work on a series of 41 woodcuts, cut by Hans Lützelburger, who hailed from Luxembourg. Titled 'Totentanz' ('The Dance of Death', 1523-1526), the work is an allegory on Death. The work opens with God's Creation of Earth and Adam & Eve's expulsion from Paradise. After this prologue, the real narrative begins. In a series of individual vignettes, we follow the Grim Reaper as he meets people and takes them away to the afterlife. Each image is accompanied by a biblical quote and a short text, describing the image. The narrative concludes with the prophecy of Resurrection and Judgement Day, when Christ will return to Earth, the dead will rise from their graves and their eternal fate will be decided. In the same vein, Holbein also made a 'Totentanz' alphabet (1524), of which each letter of the alphabet is visualized in a miniature painting, depicting the Grim Reaper picking up people.

In medieval European society, the Church constantly warned people that they should lead a moral life, to avoid eternal torture in Hell. Given that many, especially at the bottom of society, rarely grew old, this was a major concern. Wars, famine, natural disasters, illnesses and persecutions made survival difficult. People's main hope was a posthumous reward in Heaven. The Latin motto "memento mori" ("Remember that you have to die") summarized the medieval point of view the best. Various artists made visual reminders of mankind's mortality, for instance Hieronymus Bosch and his frightening depictions of Hell. Another popular allegory was the "Danse Macabre", interpreted by several painters and woodcutters. These works depicted skeletons rising from the grave, dancing alongside the mortals. Their hollow eyes and skull grimace were a frightful reminder that Death always has the last laugh. At the same time, the dancing skeletons also offer a glimpse of hope, namely that the dead at least go out in style.

First four letters of the 'Totentanz' alphabet (1524).

Holbein's 'Totentanz', made when the Middle Ages were slowly transforming into the Renaissance, ought to be understood in the context of these "Danse Macabre" illustrations. It follows a loose narrative, where the Grim Reaper meets people who each represent a specific profession or societal class. He starts off with the highest echelons of society, namely the Pope, Emperor, King and Cardinal. Since women were considered second-class citizens, the Empress and Queen are next. The Grim Reaper continues his path, picking up the Bishop, Duke, Abbot, Abbess, Nobleman, Canon, Judge, Lawyer, Senator, Preacher, Priest, Monk, Nun, Old Woman, Physician, Astrologe, Rich Man, Merchant, Sailor, Knight, Count, Old Man, Countess, Noblewoman and Duchess. Moving down to the lower classes, the macabre visitor then confronts the Peddlar, Peasant and, most chillingly, the innocent child in the cradle. The Grim Reaper moves with ease. He dances alongside his victims, sometimes mocking their ignorance and showing off his superiority. In some images, he holds an hourglass, reminding people how little time there's left for them. In others, like when he walks alongside an old woman and man, he appears a bit more compassionate, actually bringing final relief to their suffering. Holbein's message is firm: age, wealth and social status won't save you. Death can grasp anybody, any place, any time.

'Totentanz' has a satirical undertone, portraying the many injustices in early 16th-century European society. During a trial, a judge favors a rich man over a poor man, while the lawyer counts his money and doesn't care about the truth. The Devil whispers in the ear of a senator, who has no concern for the lower classes. A duke doesn't even want to look at the needy and therefore doesn't notice the Grim Reaper approaching. Compared with previous "Dance Macabre" works, 'Totentanz' is even more nihilistic. Being good and pious won't save you from Death either. Since the book was intended as Lutheran propaganda, the Roman Catholic Church is mocked without mercy. Their clergy is depicted being more interested in wealth than sober living. They exploit the downtrodden for personal gain and therefore form a direct alliance with Satan.

'Totentanz'. - 'The Drunkard'. 

The predominant Catholic authorities in Europe tried to oppress Lutheran propaganda, but thanks to the still recent invention of the printing press, all their manifestos, pamphlets and illustrated booklets could be duplicated into infinity. While many people couldn't read, picture stories like Lucas Cranach the Elder's 'Passional Christi und Antichristi' (1521) and Holbein's 'Totentanz', helped them understand the Lutheran messages. The publications were widely distributed and translated, helping Protestantism become the fastest-growing religion in Europe and a major concern to the Vatican and many Catholic authorities. It unfortunately also led to fierce religious wars and persecutions, both by Catholics and Protestants. It might explain why 'Totentanz' wasn't officially made available in print until 1538, when French printers Melchior and Gaspard Trechsel brought the work on the market under the title 'Les Simulachres et Historiées Faces de la Mort, Avtant Elegamment Pourtraictes, Que Artificiellement Imaginées' ("The Simulated and Historical Faces of Death, Both Elegantly Portrayed And Artificially Imagined"). However, the German headlines were replaced with two biblical quotes at the top of each page, combined with a quatrain written by Gilles Corrozet. Holbein's name was also not mentioned.

Soon enough, French general inquisitor Vidal de Bécanis banned the work for blasphemy. Various scenes in 'Totentanz' criticize the Roman Catholic Church and his teachings. A cardinal sells indulgences, to promise gullible believers a good afterlife in exchange for a wealthy sum. The abbot and abbess are so scared of dying, that they protest by screaming. The monk grabs his charity box, while the canon is only interested in falcon hunting and the nun smitten with a young troubadour on her bedside. While the scenes depicting cardinals, bishops, monks and nuns in a negative light could be defended as "general criticism", Holbein's critical depiction of the pope was undeniably specific. In 'Totentanz', the Roman-Catholic church leader is surrounded by corpses and devils, while the emperor kisses his feet. In some copies of 'Totentanz', this image was therefore altered by removing the devils.

'Totentanz' was nevertheless very popular. By 1562, there were already 11 reprints in circulation, not to mention dozens of bootlegs and imitations. The 1545 reprint added a picture and accompanying tekst about a beggar. In 1562, more images were added, portraying a soldier, waggoner, gambler, robber, blind man, beggar, drunkard, fool, young woman, young man and several children. Holbein and Lützelburger had nothing to do with these additions, as they had already passed away. Instead, these images were made by other artists.

Dance of Death ('The Gentleman', 'The New-married Lady', 'The Peddlar').

Totentanz: earliest graphic novel
'Totentanz' is additionally interesting as a prototypical comic book. Much like Lucas Cranach the Elder's 'Passional Christi und Antichristi' (1521), it can be considered an early graphic novel, Christian comic and satirical comic. 'Totentanz' presents a series of narrative images, with the text underneath making it a prototypical text comic. On first reading, the scenes appear to have no direct structure. The Grim Reaper's interactions with people could happen in any order. There seems to be no real start of finale, let alone direct transitions between each individual scene. However, on closer inspection, 'Totentanz' has a chronological plot. The Grim Reaper moves from the highest to the lowest levels of society, based on feodal hierarchy and the medieval class system. The Creation and Adam & Eve scenes at the start of the tale serve as a prologue, while the Resurrection and Last Judgement at the end are the epilogue. The Grim Reaper can also be regarded as an early comic character, given that, as a metaphor, he is by definition fictional. He also appears in all panels, making him an easily recognizable protagonist. As vague as his personality might seem, he can be interpreted in several ways. As an antagonist, for killing people without mercy, or as a good character, who at least treats all his victims equally and brings relief to people who suffer. He even appears to have a playful side, having fun while doing a difficult job. From this perspective, we could interpret the Grim Reaper as perhaps the first (anti-)hero in the history of comics.

Self-portrait, c. 1842-1843.

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