A Painting a Day: Holbein's "The Duchess" from The Dance of Death (c.1525)


The painting (or in this case, engraving) of the day: "The Duchess" from Holbein's series of prints called The Dance of Death (c.1525). The Dance of Death was a genre in European art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, mocking the pretensions and vanity of various professions who think themselves free from the touch of death. Yet Death ultimately chooses us each for a partner and dances us straight into the grave. These generic images also contain a healthy share of satire and social commentary, usually showing how Death sees through the sham and hypocrisy of religion/society to reveal the truth that riches can blind. Holbein took this genre and made it much richer, adding increased realism and making his pictures seem to move by the placing of bodies and action--nothing is static. These pictures were meant to delight and frighten, and hopefully, to make people see the corruption of the world around them. Yet it also offers a note of consolation, since Death is not a mindless, malevolent force, but also akin to the Greek Furies, delivering revenge on a host of disreputable popes, monks, kings, and lawyers.
Though any picture in this series is worthy of scrutiny, one of my favorites is "The Duchess." Of all the images, it's one of the most cinematic: the perspective is dynamic, as we see the duchess from behind, allowing us to share her perspective as she beholds the two skeletons tugging her into consciousness--and death. Clearly she lives a sumptuous life, as she has been awakened in bed (during the day, perhaps?) and has popped up with a start. Yet far from screaming or running out of the room, she seems more shocked and bewildered, as if to say, "am I dreaming? Is this real?" Her hands clutch the bed (her worldly wealth) for protection as the skeleton tugs on her skirt. Her mouth is open, perhaps calling to her servants to come to her aid (yet no aid is forthcoming). Her dog, too, doesn't seem to be barking at the skeletons, perhaps too frightened--or too docile--to do so. In short, all of her protectors--her servants, dog, and wealth--have abandoned her in her moment of need.
The other skeleton is sawing away on a violin, playing the danse macabre to usher her into the dance. Both skeletons sport the remains of hair--tattered, unruly locks that suggest that they were once young and beautiful, too. Yet they have now come to tear away her youth and beauty, as if to remind us that beauty is not a virtue, anymore than wealth. Both pass, and neither of them are granted through virtuous acts. The tremendous detail that Holbein lavishes on this image reminds us that though we long for earthly goods, they don't weigh in the balance of good or evil. In fact, they might weigh us down--as we imagine the woman's voluminous dress will, as she tries to escape.
This image is even more striking if you realize how small it is: the size of about 4 postage stamps put together. On a very small canvas, Holbein inscribed an entire world, as well as the fate of that world, for all to see

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