Hans Holbein the Younger arrived in Basel from Augsburg in the autumn of 1519. He was received as a master in the Zum Himmel guild and was engaged by Froben to illustrate books. His border designs were sculptural and complex and often included a scene from the Bible or classical literature. His prolific designs for title pages, headpieces, tailpieces, and sets of illustrated initials ranged from the humorous (peasants chasing a fox), to genre (dancing peasants and playing children), to a morbid series of initials depicting the Dance of Death.
Before leaving for England in 1526, Holbein was probably already working on his greatest graphic work, the forty-one woodcuts illustrating Imagines Mortis (The Dance of Death). The Dance of Death, a procession in which skeletons or corpses escort the living to their graves, was a major theme in the visual arts as well as in music, drama, and poetry. This use of art as an ominous reminder to the unfaithful of the inevitability of death originated in the fourteenth century, when great waves of the plague swept over Europe. By separating the procession into individual scenes, Holbein was able to intensify the suddenness and personal tragedy of death. Numerous editions were printed from the blocks engraved by Hans Lutzelburger after Holbein’s drawings.