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Some Penguin Classics, especially in the last few years, are guaranteed to surprise even the penguin-dance-of-deathmost veteran Penguin- watcher. Sometimes this can be disappointingly puzzling – Wellington’s battlefield dispatches, anyone? – and at other times this broad-minded new sense of inclusiveness can be utterly delightful. An amazing example of this latter instance is a new volume from Penguin called The Dance of Death, a series of 51 engravings, 41 of which were printed in Basle in 1524-25.

The engravings were done by the great artist Hans Holbein, who came to Basle in 1515 and encountered a thriving artistic community growing up around the still-fledgling printing industry. University of Cambridge history professor Ulinka Rublack, in her brilliant, comprehensive commentary essay in this new Penguin volume, engagingly portrays this community: “Publishers lodged and entertained authors and other international visitors,” she writes. “Even though there existed clear hierarchies, these publishers, correctors, typesetters, muscular pressmen pulling off sheets and quick-witted artists together formed a new hub of cutting-edge intellectual life.”

This Penguin edition of the series of woodcuts that’s come to be known as The Dance of Death features full-page reprints of those woodcuts, one after the next, followed by Rublack’s 80-page commentary laying out the background, interpretation, and influence of Holbein’s work. It’s a different arrangement from the one obtaining with most Penguin Classics, mainly dictated by the fact that the central work being reprinted here is a picture-sequence rather the-abbotthan a text.

It’s an extremely effective change. It throws the spotlight of the volume squarely where it belongs: on the woodcuts themselves and the genius that Holbein brings to the subject of the terrifyingly impersonal universality of death: he comes for peasants and princes alike, and in panel after panel, his grasping skeletal hands are pulling at rich gowns, plucking at sack-cloth sleeves, yanking the hoods off monks, and holding up an hourglass whose sands are quickly ebbing. Death is counting out his own tray of coins over the loud protests of The Miser; he’s breaking the mainmast of the Seaman’s ship; he’s skewering a knight with his own lance; and he’s pulling the coverings off the four-poster bed of The Duchess. He plays a merry tune as he leads The the-dukeOld Woman and the Old Man peacefully to their graves, and he leads the pleading Child away from his poor mother. And he shows no respect for ecclesiastical privilege, which was very much a controversial image in that age of Reformation – an ideological balancing act on Holbein’s part, as Rublack points out:

Holbein thus walked a tightrope. He knew that everyone belonging to that very broad spectrum of reform Catholics and Protestants would form a natural audience for his Pictures of Death. The series’ format, intricacy and, presumably, its price were aimed at elites. Holbein therefore could exploit the conventions of satire against the pope, clergy and the rich in this genre, but needed to tread carefully so as not to offend Catholic sensibilities and to be denounced as Lutheran.

The era’s foremost advocate of Church reform, the man puzzlingly referred to by Rublack as the-peddler“the cult humanist” Erasmus, was a friend and frequent client of Holbein and showed great artistic insight when he wrote, “A great artist is always himself, whether he is modelling a colossal statue or a six-inch statuette … whether he is engraving bronze and ordinary stone or precious stones and gold.” When encountering this Dance of Death, it’ll take readers only a moment to come into complete agreement with the cult humanist: this might not be a work of prose, but it’s certainly a work of genius – and now, thanks to Penguin, it’s once again in bookstores everywhere.

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© 2007-2017, Steve Donoghue