The quatrain in old French written below one of Holbein's pictures is profoundly sad in its simplicity. The engraving represents a ploughman driving his plough through a field. A vast expanse of country stretches away in the distance, with some poor cabins here and there; the sun is setting behind the hill. It is the close of a hard day's work. The peasant is a short, thick-set man, old, and clothed in rags. The four horses that he urges forward are thin and gaunt; the ploughshare is buried in rough, unyielding soil. A single figure is joyous and alert in that scene of sweat and toil. It is a fantastic personage, a skeleton armed with a whip, who runs in the furrow beside the terrified horses and belabors them, thus serving the old husbandman as ploughboy. This spectre, which Holbein has introduced allegorically in the succession of philosophical and religious subjects, at once lugubrious and burlesque, entitled the Dance of Death, is Death itself.
In that collection, or rather in that great book, in which Death, playing his part on every page, is the connecting link and the dominant thought, Holbein has marshalled sovereigns, pontiffs, lovers, gamblers, drunkards, nuns, courtesans, brigands, paupers, soldiers, monks, Jews, travellers, the whole world of his day and of ours; and everywhere the spectre of Death mocks and threatens and triumphs. From a single picture only, is it absent. It is that one in which Lazarus, the poor man, lying on a dunghill at the rich man's door, declares that he does not fear Death, doubtless because he has nothing to lose and his life is premature death.