Death, desire and dark visions
As Halloween looms, specialist Tim Schmelcher tells the stories behind nine prints depicting Death, spanning 400 years and offered in the online sale Death and Desire — The Collection of Giancarlo Beltrame
Hans Sebald Beham’s engraving Death and a Standing Nude Woman encapsulates the theme of Giancarlo Beltrame’s collection — Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death — on a tiny scale. The whole image is not even the length of a finger.
Exquisitely engraved with tiny lines and dots, a beautiful nude woman stands in front of a distant landscape while a winged figure of Death, muscular yet with a skull for a head, grabs her from behind. Next to them on the floor stands an hourglass and a stone pillar engraved with the words ‘OMNEM HOMINE VENUVSTATEM MORS ABOLET’ (‘All human beauty is abolished by Death’). What sets Beham’s shocking little print apart from other Vanitas or memento mori images is the intensely erotic overtone — this is not Death forcefully snatching a young woman from the midst of life, this is a lustful embrace.
In 1525 Sebald Beham and his brother Barthel, together with another apprentice of Albrecht Dürer’s, Georg Pencz, were arrested in Nuremberg and charged with ‘ungodly’ activities. They were banned from the city, but returned a year later, only to be banned again for the distribution of sinful images. Beham and his circle are indeed remarkable for their explicit depictions of nudes. It must have been the subversive nature of their imagery that made them choose such a private, intimate medium — tiny engravings of jewel-like precision, which earned them their nickname and for which they are known today: The Little Masters.
A grinning skeleton, crowned with a winged hourglass, sits on drapery above a pile of war trophies: pieces of body armour, a shield and a sword, but also an Imperial orb and a crown, a mitre, legal documents, a book and a painter’s palette. With an arrow the skeleton points at a stone tablet, into which the following words are cut: ‘OMNIA MIHI SUBDITA’. Death declares his rule: ‘Everything succumbs to me’.
But as the spoils at his feet imply, it is not just all living things that must die. Power and glory, military might and honour, art and learning will also perish under his rule. This is Death Triumphant, Lord over all beings and things. As so often with images of Death, the symbols and allegories mix and overlap — the arrow in his quiver is inscribed ‘Futurum’, the one pointing at the tablet ‘Presens’, and a third arrow pointing at the ground ‘Preteritum’. He is also Father Time, the master over future, present and past.
All this is executed in dark, velvety mezzotint on a large, imposing plate. Ridinger’s Rule of Death is one of the finest achievements of mezzotint printing in Germany, one of the most grandiose images of Death in print, and a great rarity.
This is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies — a screaming witch riding through the night on the giant skeleton of a dragon, grabbing the head of a baby with one hand, while holding a jug with the other, from which noxious fumes escape. Below her, astride the spine of another skeletal monster with two beaked heads, four legs and enormous ears, rides a naked man, while four other nude men run ahead and behind, supporting the skeleton with bones and strings. A boy on a goat completes this frenzied procession, as it rushes through a swampy landscape. Small children are hiding in the reeds, as one of the men is carrying a child away.
In the 16th century the Mannerist painter and art theoretician Gianpaolo Lomazzo (1538-92) mentioned this print, known as Lo Stregozzo (The Witch’s Train), together with Dürer’s Apocalypse and Schongauer’s Temptation of Saint Anthony as examples of ‘darkest visions’. He named Marcantonio Raimondi as the engraver and attributed the composition to Michelangelo, although he failed to recognise that the figure of the witch is in fact very closely based on Dürer’s engraving The Witch, in which she is depicted riding backwards on a goat.
A pastiche of numerous elements and influences, Lo Stregozzo is now unanimously attributed to Agostino Musi and stands as one of the most bizarre creations in the history of printmaking.
Hendrick Goltzius is considered the greatest engraver since Albrecht Dürer and arguably even exceeded him in technical virtuosity, which is particularly evident in this print in the rippling muscles of the dragon’s victims. Goltzius seems to delight in the sheer brutality of the scene, as the dragon bites off the face of the hapless fighter.
With its gory details, such as the severed head in the foreground and the scattered skulls and body parts, the print is reminiscent of Vittore Carpaccio’s much earlier painting of Saint George and the Dragon at the Scuola degli Schiavoni in Venice. This masterpiece of Northern Mannerist printmaking is offered here in a rare first-state impression.
‘And I looked, and behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over a fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.’ (Revelations 6.8)
The Four Horsemen is arguably the most dramatic and dynamic of all of Dürer's compositions. As the four horsemen burst out of heaven and thunder over the earth, Death is the last to emerge, grinning triumphantly on his haggard old mare. The mouth of hell opens up below, devouring a ‘lord of the earth’ — perhaps a bishop or king. No one is spared — men, women, clerics, monks and peasants all fall beneath their hooves.
Everything within the image conveys a sense of violence and rupture; the four riders are barely contained as the right borderline cuts through an arrow, the horse’s head and the peasant falling in the foreground. Art historian Erwin Panofsky observed that the three horses in the air are shown at different intervals of their galloping movement, thereby creating the impression of time and continuity, not unlike Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic recordings of bodies in motion some 500 years later.
The Apocalypse was published by Dürer himself — the first illustrated book ever published by an artist. The first edition of 1498 was issued in two versions, one with Latin text on the reverse and the other with German text. Of the two, the present German text edition is considerably rarer. A second edition was published in 1511, with Latin text only. This edition was larger and much less carefully printed. The images look uneven and dry, compared to the clear and strong impression from the 1498 edition with German text offered here.
Ensor’s web-footed Death hovering over a shrieking crowd of people is a caricature of the traditional iconography of the Triumph of Death. As in the medieval tradition of the Danse Macabre, he is the great leveller who reaps all of humanity, irrespective of status, wealth, power or moral virtue. The crowd includes all strata of society: from peasants and soldiers to monks, judges and kings.
In his depiction of this teeming mass, Ensor took inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd, in which the author presents his vision of mankind being blinded by mundane concerns and desires. With characteristically savage humour, Ensor turns this into a burlesque comedy of Death — witness the glutton vomiting on passers-by while behind him two women feast. Distracted by vice and excess, mankind is oblivious to the mortal threat that will inevitably unite us all. This is not a formal procession — the crowd rushes forward as an endless mass of humanity hurtling towards its unavoidable fate.
The inscription on the pedestal could be roughly translated as: ‘We all have to die, the rich mingled with the poor’. This anonymous and very rare print has an oddly humorous side: as they reveal a stone tondo carved with dead bodies, the winged skeleton in the front kneels down in admiration of this monument to Death, while the other two skeletons lean on it, seemingly in pleasant conversation. Their attitude is that of two gentlemen cracking a joke in a bar.
This anonymous engraving sums up the idea of the Vanitas image: the woman admires her own beauty in the mirror, unaware that Death is lurking in the background. The hourglass he is holding represents the fact that life is finite, the wheel represents the continuous movement of time, while the wing might be an attribute of Fate or Fortuna. The inscription ‘MORTALIA FACTA PERIBVNT’ could be translated as ‘mortals perish’.
It has been argued that the engraving is based on a composition by Michelangelo, although there seems little evidence of this. Although its authorship remains a mystery, this is regarded as one of the most important depictions of Death in the history of Italian printmaking.
The ‘battle of the sexes’ is a central theme in Edvard Munch’s oeuvre. Although a great innovator of artistic form and a precursor of Expressionism, he was in sentiment very much a man of the fin de siècle, and the motif of the femme fatale preying on helpless man was a pervasive theme in art and literature at the end of the 19th century.
Munch found a harrowing and powerful expression of this idea in the image of a harpy, a bird of prey with the head and body of a woman, about to sink her talons into the skeletal corpse of a man. As a subject, it is closely related to Munch’s famous 1893 woodcut and painting Love and Pain (aka Vampire), in which a red-haired woman seems to bite the neck of a man. Impressions of this print are extremely rare. To our knowledge, the present impression is the only one to have been offered at auction within the last 30 years.