Death as a Muse: Examples of How Artists Have Confronted Mortality in History

Death as a Muse:  Examples of How Artists Have Confronted Mortality in History

In honor of Halloween, Time for Art is diving into the history of dark iconography present in visual art.  Very intently artists have included skulls, bones, decaying animals, and death in their visual compositions to begin to tackle some of the great themes of existence in humanity.  These symbols are yielded to tell stories of birth and decay, the beautiful and the grotesque, finite time and mortality, and the deception of vanity.  We rely on artists to weave relationships between these ideas. 

Sixteenth century Dutch painters explored the idea of "Vanitas" (vanity and its limits) and the "Memento Mori" (a gentle reminder that you must die). Though they were some of the first to add nomenclature to the art they were making, they certainly were not the first to work with reminders of death.  Here are some great examples of artists wrestling with the intricacies of mortality:

ancient skeleton mosaic

Carpe Diem skeleton carrying pitchers, from the House of the Faun, Pompeii, 1st c. AD. 

Photo: Mesmerising and Macabre Memento Mori

woodcut print of death ritual by hans holbein

Hans Holbein, 1526


opening skull pendant with inlay and carvings

Pendant with a Memento Mori, second half of the 16th century


decaying head with skull showing in still life with jewelry

Jacopo Ligozzi 1604

St jerome at a table with a skull and book by caravaggio

 Caravaggio 1606

Vanitas Still life by Phillippe de Champaigne

Philippe de Champaigne 1671

Mother standing over deceased child in painting by charles wilson peale

Charles Wilson Peale 1772

skull with smoking cigarette by vincent van gogh

Vincent Van Gogh 1886

Cezanne still life of skull and apples

Paul Cezanne 1898

Still life with skulls and playing cards

 Max Beckmann 1945

eyeball with skull in pupil by M.C. Escher

M.C. Escher 1946

skull on green surface by andy warhol

Andy Warhol 1976

jeweled skull by Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst 2007

profile of skulls looking at each other by D* Face

D*Face 2016

Reading next

Paint Pop Art Potion Jars!
Master the Macabre:  Paint a Dark Inspired Still Life

Leave a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.