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The Dance of Death

31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare.

article-imageIllustration by Hans Holbein the Younger from the Dance of Death (all images via Wikimedia)

Back in the 16th century, one of the most popular books was a macabre tome about the “dance of death.” This allegory that personified death as an ever-present omen of the inevitable end for everyone was illustrated in a series of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1526.

First published in 1538, the book was wildly popular, with 11 editions printed by 1562, and over 100 to date, including some even bound in human skin. Yes, to increase their morbid value, six known copies of the Dance of Death were actually bound in tanned human skin. Two examples of this “anthropodermic bibliopegy” are held in the John Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island. 

Each illustration shows death haunting a pour soul, ranging from the rich to the poor, the holy to the sinners, the old to the young. Kings and beggars alike are hounded by death, shown as a skeleton or a withered corpse. The book was meant to remind its readers of the shortness of their own lives, and the ephemeral nature of all existence, something surely tactilely emphasized with the human skin versions. 

Here are a few illustrations by Hans Holbein the Younger from the Dance of Death:

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Click here for more images from Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death

THE DANCE OF DEATH, IN HUMAN SKIN: JOHN HAY LIBRARY, Providence, Rhode Island


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