Halloween is the time of year that unrepentant boneheads such as myself can revel in ubiquitous displays and celebrations involving
Admittedly, some presentations are schlocky beyond our wildest nightmares, and yet few are frightful. Skeletons, skulls, mummies, gravestones, cobwebs, and ghouls are more or less amusing. This was not originally the case, particularly for skulls.
From its overall shape and its dark, cavernous eye sockets and nasal cavities, a skull’s origin is unmistakable—human yet not human. The time when the depiction of a skull first symbolized death is ancient and debatable. The portrayal extends back at least to the early Christian era. For example, a tabletop mosaic discovered at Pompeii depicts a human skull positioned beneath a carpenter’s square and plumb bob, which together represented death–the great leveler. Within the next century, skulls and crossed thigh bones began showing up on catacomb crypts in Italy.
Several hundred years later, Crusader knights adopted the skull and cross bones for their banners, perhaps co-opting the symbol–one of ferocity and gravity–from pirates cruising the nearby Mediterranean. Later on, bottles of poison, military units, and motorcycle gangs have also used the symbol to make their intentions clear.
Remembrance more than fear or terror, however, was the main intent of skull art the Middle Ages, when funeral art and architecture incorporated stone carvings of skulls. Paint on canvas was not far behind, and artists embellished the stark message of memento mori (remember that you must die) over the following centuries.
Durer in 1521 and Caravaggio in 1605 made this message clear.
One entire genre of memento mori were the Vanitas (emptiness, futility in Latin) paintings. Over time, this theme grew in popularity and peaked among Dutch painters in the 1500’s and 1600’s. Art museums abound with paintings from this time that symbolically depict the transience and worthlessness of earthly existence: skulls, stubs of flickering candles, rotting fruit, bubbles, hour glasses, and … well, you get the idea.
A century later, poet and mystic William Blake scrapped all of the props and effectively conveyed the fleeting nature of life by a skeleton alone–in an exaggerated fetal position.
Beginning in the 19th century, skulls seemed to lose their stigma as a symbol of death among artists. Rather, painters found them fascinating objects to portray because of their various curves, reflective surfaces, and strongly contrasting areas of light and dark.
When I look at these paintings by Cezanne, I do not get the picture that he was worried about death or that he was trying to worry me. It seems as if he just got bored with painting peaches and pears.
Conversely, Van Gogh may have had mixed feelings about skull symbolism. He completed these three paintings within a year of each other. Whereas one shouts death, the other two are less emotionally evocative, although I am not sure that I would want to hang either of them over my sofa.
Then comes Picasso–playful and awesomely creative and progressively so over his career.
Without having seen the sequence of Picasso’s skulls, I am not sure that I would have recognized that his 1946 rendition includes a skull.
Other artists also disguised skulls in their works. Holbein’s The Ambassadors contains one in the middle foreground, but it is indistinguishable when viewed straight on. It jumps out, however, when the original painting (National Gallery, London) is viewed up close and looking up from the left or down from the right. Charles Allan Gilbert did not play with perspective, just with our mind’s interest in searching for familiarity. Sometimes it gets tricked.
Georgia O’Keeffe painted mainly bovine skulls but now and then a human one. Of course, Salvador Dali painted some strange ones.
Skull art seems to hold continuing fascination for many contemporary artists and for some wealthy connoisseurs. Regardless whether you would want to hang the one below on the left in your salon, it sold at auction in 1982 for $110.5 million. Christie’s tried to auction the one on the right on October 4, 2018. There was one bid for $13.6 million, which was below the reserve of $15 million, so the folk at Christie’s can use it to decorate their Halloween party.