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Parting Thought on Holbein

Holbein’s Dance of Death was published in a series of 49 woodcut engravings by Hans Lützelburger in 1538—as were the 91 woodcuts in his Illustrations of the Old Testament, also known as “Holbein’s Bible.” When Melville alluded to “Holbein’s Dance of Death / Sly slipped among his prints from Claude” in Clarel, he added this delicious phrase: “Cosmetic-users scarce are bold to face a skull” (NN C 2.12.30-31). This would seem to be a direct allusion to Holbein’s depiction of The Duchess in The Dance of Death, an image reproduced in Melville of The Wonders of Engraving by George Duplessis, a book he gave as a present to his wife Elizabeth in 1875, a year before he published Clarel (Sealts no. 195). Holbein’s duchess sits upright as the skeleton of death begins to pull her legs out through the end of her canopied bed (see MBB 1.3).  Holbein introduced his image of the Duchess with a Biblical passage from 2 Kings 1:4: “Thou shalt not come down from that bed on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die” (Holbein 141).