As long as written word has existed, tales where skulls played at least a tiny part in humankind history are only natural. For ages skulls are associated with death and evil in most parts of the world, while in other smaller regions is associated with life and celebration. Doesn’t matter what role a skull has partaken in history, the representation of skulls in human art has been notorious, being skull art one of most famous or infamous in history.
The skull and its symbolism is attached to humankind development. For ages skull art has entertained our senses with certain aesthetic appealing, but at the same time we repel it thanks of what it represents. Recognising human skulls is wired to our brains and at the same time the human brain can’t separate the image of a human skull from the familiar human face. Because of this, both the death and the now past life of the skull are symbolised in different eras, being most prominent in the Middle Ages. In this article I will talk about 5 famous skull art paintings and their symbolism.
1. The Triumph of Death
The black death, the 100 years’ war and the crisis in the middle ages was assimilated by European culture. People saw death and devastation, and portrayed it in its paintings. This skull art is an oil painting made by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, from 1562. Bruegel was the most significant artist of the Dutch Renaissance painting movement. The painting shows an army of skeletons destroying everything at sight. Everything in this skull art is filled with havoc, the sea is filled with shipwrecks, trees don’t have vegetation, and corpses everywhere. Skulls are killing everything in front of them. This skull art captures the fear of death at the time and how slowly was consuming everybody. Skeletons doing very nasty things such as using torture machines of the time, destroying the forests, unburying more corpses, and making the survivors enter a chamber that looks like a big coffin, surrounded by a horde of skeletons curious and eager to finish what others have started. It will take some time to analyse the entire print, here is the link with a high resolution image, to appreciate the detail of this skull art.
2. Danse Macabre
The Dance of the Death is a late-medieval allegory of death and its universality; Everybody dies regardless of who you are, everybody is reunited in the dance of death. Obviously death here is portrayed by a skeleton or a skull. No matter your position in life, we are reunited in death. Figures like popes, emperors, kings, children and labourers were commonly portrayed next to a skeleton or a very decayed body dancing with them.
The famous painter Bernt Notke and his famous skull art called “Totentanz” depict these creatures as very agile, like dancing whilst their alive counterparts are very passive and clumsy. Each one of the characters have a short legend beneath them, saying stuff like “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out Sceptre and crown are worthless here I’ve taken you by the hand for you must come to my dance”. An awesome skull art painting to observe and read. Watch it in detail here.
3. The skull art of the “Memento Mori”
Because everybody was scared as shit in the middle ages, a theory born out the reflection on mortality, mocking vanity and its pursuits. Memento Mori or “Remember that you have to die” is still used in art as asymbolic reminders or our mortality. Hieronymus Bosch, one of the most famous medieval ages painter known in our era created “Death and the Miser”, a painting that was made to help the famous handbooks used in the 15th century on the art of dying, intended to help mortals choose Christ over pleasures from Earth. The skull art presents Death waiting for the miser, who can’t control earthly temptations reaches for a bag of gold even when an angel is making moves to show him Christ is watching. Add to this several demon creatures messing with your bed sheets, just waiting for the miser to die. Wacth the entire print here.
4. Ars Moriendi
“The Art of Dying” were 2 text of latin origins dating from the Middle Ages (1415 – 1450) where protocols and procedures of a good death were presented. This series of skull art were also the first books to be made with movable type and it consists of six chapters. Woodworks were used to demonstrate some of the signs or temptations the dying man might suffer.
One example of this is the 13th century legend about the Three living and the three dead. The legend talks about three gentlemen that meet the cadavers of their ancestors, skulls with clothes wandering about, who warn them: “What we were, you are; what we are, you will be” The depiction of Death and retribution in this skull art is marvelous, is the best example of memento mori in mediaeval art.
5. The Hell Courtesan
We travel now to Japan to talk about this series of skull art derived of a single legend of a girl who was a bitch, all the time.
This skull art talks about “Jigoku Dayu” or the Hell Courtesan, a very beautiful girl enjoying the pleasures of old Japan. She was beautiful but was extremely arrogant with her servants, other courtesans and even with customers. She suddenly died and Ema-O the King of Hell make her suffer, telling her misfortune was the result of karma from her previous life.
She is then depicted with ghosts, demons and skeletons surrounding her, representing her discovery of transience of life. These skull allegories were made in a special and specific genre of art in Japan called Ukiyo-e (17th to 19th centuries), made in woodblock or paintings and depicting female beauties, kabuki actors and sumo westlers, scenes from daily life.