The greatest mystery of all

Today we talk about an uncomfortable argument. The meaning of Death through the centuries and its iconographic appearance…

The duality of Death

The personification of Death and its symbols are a lot older, given there is no culture that did not dedicate some complex descriptive mythology to it. The most amazing thing is that often in the past Death was represented without these horror and macabre features which it took on starting from the Middle Ages. In ancient cultures, there are two different representations of Death, that no longer exist today. In ancient Greece, for example, while Tanathos was the main entity, Charon was the ferryman who carried the souls of the newly deceased across the river and even wanted to be paid for his service. A similar symbology exists also in Hinduism, where Yama, announces the death of a person riding a black buffalo, holding a rope to drag the more rebellious ones; his servants Yamaduts, carry the souls of the deceased towards the afterlife, where they will be judged and their next reincarnation will be decided.

Death tattoo by Andy Engel, Andy's Tattoo, Kitzingen, Germany
Andy Engel, Andy’s Tattoo, Kitzingen, Germany

The skeleton with the sickle

The most popular iconography of Death is the skeleton carrying a sickle. The spreading of this type of representation, starts in the 15th century, along with a series of British folkloristic tales. This figure is called Ankou (and then Grim Reaper) and it is shown as a skeleton pulling a cart in the wind, with squeaky wheels and a sickle ready to spread terror and devastation. Many representations start to appear where Ankou leads the deceased, sometimes drinking with them or dancing together with other skeletons. The macabre dances, move from the artistic representation to reality, thus becoming traditions especially in rural areas, where funerals are often followed by banquets and crazy dances. More than one Pope in fact tried to stop them.

The Santa Muerte

This aspect of funeral celebrations also creates many religious and iconographic syncretisms. The most famous is the Santa Muerte, especially popular in Central and South America, where the object of worship is a skeleton dressed elegantly, carrying a sickle in his right hand and a globe in the left, in a fusion of three mystical figures: the Madonna, Ankou and Mictlantecuhtli, aka the Aztec god of Death. In the Medieval European tradition, death rapidly takes on the appearance of a woman with a sickle dressed in black who knocks on the door of the predestined. Or as a knight or skeleton with sickle, especially after the Great Plague of 1347-48 and after the religious battles of the 16th century, when the idea of the “good death” becomes the central point of the popular culture.

Memento Mori

A particular representation of death – very popular still in figurative arts and particularly in tattoo art – is the so-called Memento Mori, artistic subject created between the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe and that, from that moment on spread across the ocean and reached its peak in the United States in the 19th century. At first the Memento Mori (literally from Latin “remember you must die”) was a painting with a skull or another macabre element inserted in it, small in size, but aiming to remind the observer of their inevitable destiny.

Death tattoo by Joao Bosco, On The Road, Los Angeles, USA
Joao Bosco, On The Road, Los Angeles, USA

The triumph of Death

The combination between joyful and macabre elements quickly changes into a real artistic style which takes on a completely different meaning from its original one. Instead of being a strict warning on the transience of earthly things, it is an encouragement to enjoy life, eat, drink and have fun, because you can die in any moment. The Memento Mori will find it maximum expression in funeral art starting from the 16th century when popes and statesmen start to build enormous funeral monuments where the Triumph of Death is represented by all the objects and icons of deathly vanitas. The most famous is the Imperial crypt in Vienna, which was built by the Habsburg in 1633 for the members of the noble family. On the grave of Emperor Carl VI (1685-1740) there is a skeleton wearing the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, as an eternal warning to consider the transience of earthly glories.

Death tattoo by Julian Siebert, Corpsepainter Tattoo, Munich, Germany
Julian Siebert, Corpsepainter Tattoo, Munich, Germany