Spotlight: Daniel Hopfer’s “Death and the Devil Surprising a Worldly Woman,” c. 1520

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Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising a Worldly Woman, c.1520 Gift of Leo Wallerstein


This print by German artist Daniel Hopfer explores both vanity and death, which were common subjects in the sixteenth century. Personifications of death and the devil performing the Totentanz (the dance of death) creep up behind an unsuspecting woman and her attendant. The aristocratic woman stands before her dressing table looking into a hand mirror, and perhaps catches a glimpse of her fate in the reflection. The intricately hatched lines juxtapose the heavy folds of the woman’s dress and the scaly skin of the dragon-faced devil. A smaller demon stands upon the devil’s head menacingly brandishing a spear, while another hovers over the women’s heads. The figure of death is presented as a decrepit old man holding a skull and an hourglass, objects associated with time, to remind the viewer of the transience of life and material pleasures. The image’s moralizing message emphasizes that money and social status are ultimately meaningless at the time of death and encourages a more virtuous life instead. In the late sixteenth century, this type of images, known as memento mori (Latin for “remember you will die”) became very popular.

Hopfer (1470-1536) is generally considered to be the first to use etching in the history of printmaking, a technique he may have drawn from his job etching decoration onto armor. He worked in Augsburg, Germany, which is reflected in his signature consisting of his initials and a decorative pinecone resembling the imperial city’s coat of arms. A contemporary of Albrecht Dürer, Hopfer was known for his use of gothic and Italian style across a variety of themes, from biblical illustration, historical events to portraiture and everyday scenes.

– Victoria Kung ’14, Curatorial Intern


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