Thursday, September 07, 2006

Money and the Dance of Death

[Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), The Rich Man, a woodcut from the Collection of the British Museum, c. 1526]


Money and the Dance of Death

Totentanz or the Dance of Death was one of the great artistic and literary leitmotifs of 15th and 16th Century Germany. The presence of death was visible everywhere in the culture because of the frequent occurrence of plague and other deadly diseases. One's longevity was uncertain. There was a sense that one could be visited by death at any moment. Holbein's series of 4o-plus illustrative woodcuts shows Death coming to people from all walks of life from beggars to priests, to knights and craftsmen. An artist always has choices in how he or she conveys a theme, the moment in time, the circumstances of death's appearance, and the setting. The woodcut process demands precision and predetermination in its crafting, and thus every detail is significant and telling.

Holbein chooses to personify Death as a character who has just enough flesh and bones to animate its presence. No black cloak, no scythe. This Death has body language (lending graphically to the quality of the dance). In this case, in gathering up the "Rych man's" money, Death is mirroring back to him the act and quality of greed that led to such accumulation. It is a kind of truth-telling and mockery, a demonstration of the man's own shadow. There are strong boxes, money bags, and coins everywhere they might rest in the room. The room is cell-like, probably meant to be a protective vault; but now, it looks more like a prison of the rich man's own making. Death has breached the thick-walled iron-grated chamber, the rich man's inner sanctum. The man protests of course; he is inseparable from his money. It is his life, his identity. Having put his stock in the security of money, Holbein makes it clear that the rich man's stock is now his vulnerability. In the realm of death and the spirit, money and life have no security value. It is no small linguistic turn that misery is the external expression of the inner condition of the miser. It is the rich man's connection to the money, his relationship to it, the shadows he carries around it, the "immaterial" aspects that find expression in Death's appearance and the death process. This is the story Holbein tells. The candle on the table is burned down. The hour glass has run out. Death collects the money, not because it has a use for it, but because it has a lesson to teach. The moment of destiny is non-negotiable. The consequence of greed and unabated accumulation of wealth is a legacy of false security.

Interestingly, the value of art is that it transcends time, that it rises into and falls out of relevance in some rhythm sympathetic with the need to experience a truth that returns balance to the human sense of well-being. What was designed by Hans Holbein the Younger and printed to educate an audience in the 16th Century seems relevant still, though we seem to have less of a taste for moralizing. Imagine this woodcut as propaganda for the so called "death tax!"

John Bloom ©2006

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