At Large  May 12, 2022  Marissa Lupkas

Death Symbolism & Personification Traced Through Art History

Wikimedia Commons.

Arnold Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, detail, 1872. Oil on canvas. Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.

Regardless of gender, ethnicity, creed, or political ideology, one thing for certain is we are going to die. Death is the inevitable fate in the plight of man and the great equalizer to all. Consequently, themes of death are richly scattered throughout the art-historical timeline, manifesting in depictions of the divine, notions of memento mori, and the strikingly common Death personified. The latter especially reaches across cultures, traditions, and artistic mediums, aptly demonstrating how humans manage to dissect the intangible in order to survive periods of grief and turmoil.

Humanoid or beast, god or steward to the underworld, the particulars of Death’s personification is ever-evolving to suit the needs of various social and religious environments. Polytheistic religions, such as those found in ancient Egypt and Greece, understandably assigned a multitude of gods to concepts of death and dying.

Unknown, Book of the Dead for the Chantress of Amun, Nauny, c. 1050 BC. Papyrus and paint.
The Metropolitan Museum. Rogers Fund 1930.

Unknown, Book of the Dead for the Chantress of Amun, Nauny, c. 1050 BC. Papyrus and paint.

Unknown, Thanatos in a detail of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Found at the southwest corner of the temple. Excavated by J. T. Wood for the British  Museum, 1871.
The British Museum.  

Unknown, Thanatos in a detail of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos.

An Egyptian funerary scroll from 1050 BCE, depicts the Chantress of Amun undergoing Nauny’s ritual, post-mortem weighing of the heart. Isis, Anubis, and Osiris surround the Chantress; she holds her eyes and heart, waiting for the scales to level and reveal the final judgment of her gods. While this work does not depict the exact moment of the Chantress’ demise nor a singular personification of Death, these deities are each associated with death in some way and thus undertake duties of assessing morality and guiding her into the afterlife.

In the context of ancient Greek myth, one might initially think of Hades, Charon, or the Fates. But it is the minor god Thanatos who is the physical embodiment of Death. The son of Erebus and Nyx, and the twin of Hypnos, Thanatos' sweeping wings and gentle touch brought even the strongest of warriors to their graves. Although this and other ancient depictions of Death are a far cry from modern interpretations, in giving physical form to the abstract concept of death, these cultures laid a vital foundation for later representations.

Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Maître de Jacques de Besançon, La Danse macabre (ou l'Empire de la Mort, sur tous les  états de la vie humaine), 1 vol. of 5,  1491-1499. Sheets printed on vellum, 19th century binding. Aubergine Russian leather.

In Western art, the rise of skeletal figures as Death can be traced back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. With the onslaught of the Great Famine, Black Plague, and Hundred Years War, death seeped into all aspects of life.

The epitome of the era and region’s death imagery can be found in the trope of La Danse macabre (The Dance of Death). More specifically, in the illustrations of the notable yet anonymous Parisian illuminator Maître de Jacques de Besançon. In this rendition, the bright illustrations show Death as a human skeletal figure, sashed in white drapery and wielding a scythe. He escorts those from the highest factions and the lowliest alleys through the veil, underscoring the fact that Death does not discriminate and all will die eventually.

The fears of this period can also be understood quite well via the examination of contemporaneous memento mori (remember you must die) motifs. Embodying the tenements of mortality and morality, many such motifs also featured Death as an anthropomorphic entity. Such images were executed across an array of mediums from the period. From engraved rosary pendants to large-scale paintings, Death personified began to dominate popular culture.

The Metropolitan Museum. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917.

Unknown, Rosary Terminal Bead with Lovers and Death’s Head, 1500-1525. Ivory, with emerald pendant, silver-gilt mount.

Between the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much of the Western world became ensnared by the tendrils of war and pestilence. Death became the status quo and mourning traditions were forced to evolve. Private grieving events became public spectacles and vast cemeteries were built out of a need for space. Once more, the figure of Death became popular within the visual landscape.

Arnold Böcklin perfectly executed Death’s consistent and lurking presence in his painting, Self Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle. The depicted Böcklin is mid-painting when he suddenly notices the reflection of Death playing a single-string fiddle. Echoing the myths of the Fate’s thread of life, the portrait acknowledges the precariousness of his existence, while the cheekiness of Death’s grin suggests a taunting jest. One flinch or minor mistake and Böcklin could meet his end. Although grim, it was the reality of life during this time.

Watercolor by R. Cooper, c. 1912. Depicts a sickly young woman sitting covered up on a balcony; Death (a ghostly skeleton clutching a scythe and an hourglass) is standing next to her; representing tuberculosis.
Wellcome Collection.

Watercolor by R. Cooper, c. 1912. Depicts a sickly young woman sitting covered up on a balcony; Death (a ghostly skeleton clutching a scythe and an hourglass) is standing next to her; representing tuberculosis.

Hans Larwin, The Soldier and Death (Soldot und tod), 1917. Oil on Canvas.
Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Larwin, The Soldier and Death (Soldot und tod), 1917. Oil on Canvas.

Other captivating representations of Death from the period include painter Richard Tennant Cooper’s Death as tuberculosis (also known as consumption or the white death), which highlights one of the period’s most fatal illnesses, and Hans Lawrin’s The Soldier and Death, which captures the bleak and chaotic nature of WWI.

Throughout history, the personification of Death has fluctuated greatly in terms of popularity. Its peaks often coincide with periods of great strife. Although often imagined as looming and foreboding, perhaps the figure of Death should not be so feared. After all, the end of life is one of humanity’s only universal experiences. Whether it is welcomed or not, all life will eventually come to an end.

wikimedia commons.

Hugo Simberg, The Garden of Death, 1896. Oil on canvas. Ateneum Art Museum.

Hugo Simberg seems to embrace this line of thought in his painting, The Garden of Death. In a tender and warm depiction of reapers caring for souls, who are rendered as flowers in their nursery, Simberg offers an abstract yet sympathetic view of Death personified.

About the Author

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

“Quiet as It’s Kept”: Whitney Biennial Returns with Middling Show
Silenced by the pandemic last year, The Whitney Biennial returns with an…
“William Klein: YES” at the International Center of Photography
The International Center of Photography (ICP) will present a major…
Claude Monet's Life & Works in 10 Surprising Facts
Monet was a master painter whose works are synonymous with the Impressionist…
The History of Copying Art: A Learning Tool or a Cheat? 
Copying within the context of the art world has evolved over the centuries.…
Beyond Nasca Lines: The Compelling Mystery of Nasca Pottery
Archeologist gives inside look at their research process & unpacks…