May 23, 2006

Theatrum Mortis

Janez Vaijkard Valvasor (1641-93), also known as Johann Weichard (or Wiechert, or Wieckart, or Weikhard) Valvasor, was a man of many accompishments: a soldier, and military commander who was also a scholar— an historian & historiographer; a geographer, ethnographer & cartographer; a natural scientist; and a collector, painter and publisher. He was born in what is now Ljubljana, Slovenia, then better-known as Laibach, the principal city in the Austrian-ruled Duchy of Carniola. During the 1670s, he developed ambitious plans to write and publish a variety of illustrated treatises on a range of subjects, and to this end he set up his own publishing concern at his home at Bogenšperk Castle. Between 1679 and 1689 he issued a series of works, culminating in a 15-volume opus entitled Die Ehre deß Herzogthums Crain ‘The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola,’ ‘a genuine encyclopedia of natural science, local customs and folklore, history, and topography that covered a large part of present-day Slovenia, Istria and surrounding regions.’

Detail from the engraved frontispiece by Johann Koch, ca. 1682, to Valvasor's 'Theatrum Mortis.'


Detail from the title-page to Valvasor's 'Theatrum Mortis.'

While most of Valvasor’s works partook of the spirit of scientific inquiry, and were based on painstaking research and the careful observation of natural phenomena, at least one other of his publications hints, meanwhile, that this spirit coexisted with a decidedly conventional moral and religious outlook: this was his Theatrum Mortis Humanæ Tripartitum, of 1682: an emblem-book of sorts devoted to the subject of Death. As its title states, the book is in three parts. The first, and longest section is a todten-danz a ‘dance of death’ in which Death, personified as a skeleton, is shown surprising figures representative of all ranks & professions, from Popes and Emperors, by way of Merchants and Soldiers, to Beggars, Dotards and Infants. Each encounter is illustrated by an engraving, and is accompanied by some verses in Latin and German, often in the form a brief dialogue between Death and his chosen victim.

Detail from the 'Abbott' engraving by Johann Koch, part of the Totentanz sequence, ca. 1682, in Valvasor's 'Theatrum Mortis.'


Detail from the 'Astrologer' engraving by Johann Koch, part of the Totentanz sequence, ca. 1682, in Valvasor's 'Theatrum Mortis.'

In the book’s second section, Varia Genera Mortis, we are presented with a catalogue of notable deaths: many of its pages are devoted to the demises of historical or legendary personages. While a couple of these have some element of black comedy about them (such as the dramatist Æschylus’s death by falling tortoise, shown in the detail below), the prevailing mood is one of cruelty and grim suffering. Other pages show unnamed victims of persecution and punishment: buryings, hangings & impalements; while in one scene (the second of the details that follow) we see some unfortunate fellows being pursued & bitten by a dragon. As bad as these scenes are, Valvasor was evidently keen to emphasise that these were as nothing when compared with the torments that awaited the souls of the damned, as vividly documented in the book’s third section, Varia Tormenta Damnatorum.

Detail from engraving of the death of Aeschylus, by Johann Koch, part of the 'Varia Genera Mortis' sequence, ca. 1682, in Valvasor's 'Theatrum Mortis.'


Detail from engraving of the death by dragon-attack, by Johann Koch, part of the 'Varia Genera Mortis' sequence, ca. 1682, in Valvasor's 'Theatrum Mortis.'

The present images are details of scans taken from a reprint of the Theatrum published by Georg Olms Verlag in 2004. Click on them to see them enlarged, and in full. The book’s illustrations were the work of one Johann (or Janez) Koch (ca. 1650-1705). Some of these illustrations are also supposed to be viewable here, although up to now, I’ve been unable to get them to work.

Detail from an engraving by Johann Koch, part of the 'Varia Tormenta Damnatorum' sequence, ca. 1682, in Valvasor's 'Theatrum Mortis.'


Detail from an engraving by Johann Koch, part of the 'Varia Tormenta Damnatorum' sequence, ca. 1682, in Valvasor's 'Theatrum Mortis.'

The final pair of details above show, respectively, a former coveter of his neighbour’s wife unwillingly submitting to some impromptu surgery administered by a pair of demons with a large saw, and a soul guilty of the deadly sin of sloth, about to recieve a sharp wake-up call…

Posted by misteraitch at May 23, 2006 01:15 PM

The name Valvasor rings a distant vague bell I must have seen in passing. It reminds me why I would choose the 17th cent. if time travel was possible. Decidedly twisted, with a healthy slice of enthusiastic naive insight. I could just imagine going to a job interview with a minion reading out the talents from a scroll. Outstandingly obscure, thanks.

Posted by: peacay on May 24, 2006 09:51 AM

Regarding the dragon eating the hapless guy (the other one looks like he is having a heart attack), it reminds me of a painting in the National Gallery in London where some mythical dragon of Thebes or somewhere is in the process of eating someone in the same manner as in this etching: by starting from a good bite at the head. This is so peculiar, and I have been wondering about the possible intertexts (and / or subtexts) of this.

Also, I found the border, with its cats and bees and flowers, to be in some discord with the rest of the etching.

Posted by: Loxias on May 24, 2006 10:27 AM

Loxias—was this the painting? If so, it could well have influenced Valvasor & Koch by way of this engraving.

Posted by: misteraitch on May 24, 2006 11:03 AM

Yes, that's the one.

Goltzius' print looks more dramatic than the Cornelis van Haarlem painting (which in turn is quite vivid).

I'm still wondering where this odd idea on the predatory habits of dragons comes from -- some allegorical allusion perhaps?

Posted by: Loxias on May 24, 2006 11:38 AM
When the place for the new city, [Cadmea, afterwards Thebes], was determined, Cadmus decided to sacrifice the cow to the goddess Athena. With that purpose in mind, he sent some of his men to draw water from the spring later called Dirce (some have said Castalia), belonging to Ares, which happened to be guarded by a dragon said to be the offspring of the god, or sacred to him. This dragon, which had a golden crest, flashed fire from his eyes, had a triple tongue, teeth ranged in triple row, and the body swollen with poison, devoured Cadmus’ companions. But when he discovered that the beast was the reason why those who were sent after water never returned, he confronted it and killed it, sowing, by the advice of Athena, its teeth in the earth.—source here.
Posted by: misteraitch on May 24, 2006 12:00 PM

Here are the verses from Theatrum Mortis corresponding to the dragon image: they don’t seem to have anything to do with the Cadmus legend, & are based instead on something taken from Aulus Gellius…

Posted by: misteraitch on May 24, 2006 10:50 PM

Great post, precious considerations and links. Any pictoric, historical and thematical semelhance with Bosch, Brueghel and Schongauer?

Posted by: Marcio on May 27, 2006 03:55 AM

All blog is very interesting. Thanks for each detail.

Posted by: Vigo on May 27, 2006 12:25 PM

Your blog is always inspiring & full of beauty. Thanks for all these marvellous pics & commentaries

Posted by: DéDé on May 27, 2006 02:47 PM

I must confess this is one of the most interesting and original blogs I've ever seen.

Posted by: Braintree on May 29, 2006 03:03 AM

Another fascinating posting MrHaitch.

I suspect that Valvasor found inspiration for the first part of 'Theatrum Mortis' in the folk art of Istria and Slovenia. Two churches, at Hraztovlje, in Slovenian Istria and Beram in Croatian Istria, have late 15th centrury ‘dance of death’ murals where Death, in the form of skeletons, accompanies in succession: popes and bishops, royalty, children and cripples, knights, inkeepers and merchants. I’ve seen the Beram mural (in fact, came close to receiving a divorce petition for making my partner walk 12 miles in the Adriatic heatwave of 1989 to admire it!) and would love to see the Hraztovlje one too. Links to articles on both of them are given below:

Posted by: paulm on May 31, 2006 12:46 AM

Mr. H! Theatrum Mortis is divinely deathly and cold. How I love your exquisite blog. . . . especially when it waxes macabre. . . .

We're watching, baby! And it looks like a magnificent feast!


Posted by: Julia P. on June 4, 2006 02:54 PM

i too love it when you touch on the more macabre subjects. i am fascinated with this particular book but i can't seem to find it for sale anywhere...i live in the united states. how did you come across this? was it on some online bookstore? thanks.

Posted by: paradise on June 5, 2006 08:05 AM

paradise—I bought my copy through abebooks—just do a title search on ‘Theatrum mortis humanae,’ and you should see a couple of (German) booksellers listing it. It’s also available via, and direct from the publisher—although in those cases you’d probably have to navigate some German-language pages to place an order.

Posted by: misteraitch on June 5, 2006 08:38 AM

mr. h,
this is most fantastic. it made my day. i am working on something that is greatly influenced by the danse macrabre so this is particular treat.

Posted by: -- j on June 7, 2006 05:07 AM

this is most fantastic. i am working on something that is greatly influenced by the danse macabre so this post was of particular interest to me. thanks!

Posted by: -- j on June 7, 2006 05:08 AM

sorry for posting twice (now 3x). something was wrong with my browser and i thought the comment didn't go through.

Posted by: --j on June 7, 2006 05:10 AM
Comments are now closed