In the first plate of this series, a skeleton still half-wrapped in a shroud is seen emerging from a tomb, greeted by five female figures with bird feet representing various vices: Vanity, Cunning, Falsehood, Bloodthirstyness, and Frenzy. Each one of them has a gift for Death: one offers him a hat adorned with a cock feather, and a glimpse of himself in a mirror, another gives a sword, the others a pair of scales, a scythe, a horse. Cunning and Falsehood point toward Justice they have defeated and bound, and from whom they have taken the sword and the scales.
The title reads in the original German:
Der Tod entsteigt dem Grab.
Alfred Rethel’s Dance of Death is a series of six woodcuts engraved under the supervision of Hugo Bürkner and usually known as Yet Another Dance of Death (Auch ein Totentanz), or sometimes A Dance of Death from the Year 1848 (Ein Todtentanz aus dem Jahre 1848). A reaction to the popular uprisings and democratic revolutions which spread across Europe at the time, it was first published in 1849 to great acclaim, accompanied by verses by Robert Reinick which give insights into the scenes. This combination of words and pictures is usually considered a staunch counterrevolutionary and reactionary manifesto, highligting the destructive folly of rebellion and revolutions, and the dangers of pursuing such pipedreams as liberty, fraternity, and republican systems. Some attempts have been made, however, to nuance this understanding of Rethel’s opinions.
- ^ Albert Boime (1991) “Alfred Rethel’s Counterrevolutionary Death Dance” Art Bulletin vol. 73, N° 4 (this PDF document has been saved to the Internet Archive).