The Dance of Death


Block books are slim volumes, typically comprising 20 to 50 pages, produced by cutting text and images into wooden blocks (a process known as xylography). The production of block books reached its peak at a time when printing with metal letters (moveable type) was already established, around the 1460s–1470s. Worldwide only about 600 block book copies have survived, and they are among the rarest and most precious products of the printing press. The Bavarian State Library holds 40 of these books and eight fragments. Totentanz (The dance of death) covers a similar topic to the Ars moriendi (The art of dying): the sudden death that anybody can suffer, irrespective of worldly rank. On each of the 24 images a personification of Death dances with a person from a different social position, leading the individual out of life. The series of victims starts with a pope and an emperor, continues with an abbot, a nobleman and a farmer, and finishes with a helpless child and his mother. Only two copies of the block book version of the Totentanz are known: this one at the Bavarian State Library in Munich, and a volume in the library of the University of Heidelberg. The two copies represent different editions, and the images have many differences. The copy shown here has some unique features. The text, which was originally placed below the illustrations, was trimmed, the images were cut out and glued onto larger sheets, and the text was reproduced by hand. Based on codicological evidence, this was done in the third quarter of the 15th century, shortly after the production of the book.

Last updated: November 15, 2013