You know that art through the ages has represented death graphically using skeletons and skulls, these also being symbols of the most macabre celebration of the year, Halloween? The most terrifying night is upon us!
Halloween is a holiday related to the Anglo-Saxon Celtic New Year Samhain, a Gaelic word meaning “end of summer”, and pointed to the conclusion of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. For the Celts this was a time of celebration mixed, at the same time, with a great fear of death. For this reason, they used to celebrate rites and light bonfires wearing grotesque masks and animal skins to frighten the spirits away.
The theme of death is a big question mark that since prehistoric times involved humanity and which, for various reasons, mankind has wanted to represent in various art forms. From prehistoric times, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance up to contemporary art, many artists have been fascinated by composing beautiful works full of artistic and cultural significance.
The character of immediacy of Death, its sudden occurrence, and the impotence of man in face of it, drove men to seek answers in religion and worship of the life after death. It is amazing what can be found in Etruscan tombs or the Egyptian Pyramids, or the graphical representation of the deity who accompanied souls in the afterlife.
In the Middle Ages, however, to raise awareness and spread the Christian doctrine to the poor and illiterate masses many frescos were commissioned. What better way to communicate with illiterate people, except through images? By biblical scenes and the images of the Saints they could learn good behavior and to escape the temptations of sin. In preaching, art was a warning well represented by the phrase “remember you must die!” (Memento mori).
First, the theme of the “Triumph of Death” was linked to that of the Last Judgment, related to the representation of Heaven and Hell. In the late Middle Ages instead it takes on a desolate tone, in which Death decimates “freely” the population (the period of the plague) and results in a fanciful vision of a tremendous collective experience.
The symbols include skeletons each armed with a sickle decimating Kings, Popes and ordinary people alike, and skulls, pictures of the physical frailty of man and earthly dimension of existence that ceases with death. Among the notable examples: the “Triumph of Death” of Buffalmacco in Pisa, the same theme at the Palace Abetellis of Palermo, and “The lady of the world” at the Oratory of the Disciplines in Clusone (Bergamo).
For the Renaissance suffice the example of St. Jerome by Caravaggio (painted 1605-1606), commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese and today in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. St. Jerome is portrayed while translating the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, a subject much promoted in the era of the Counter Reformation. There are a few elements, and each has its own symbolic meaning. Among them, the skull resting on the Holy books: it is the symbol of the transience of mankind over knowledge, but Knowledge is eternal. It is the symbol of human trifles that, after death, no longer exist, so is a warning to the faithful to address the really important things, just as St. Jerome does.
And, contemporary art is no exception!
One example is that of Damien Hirst, British artist and group leader of the Young British Artists. He dominated the art scene of the 90s with the theme of death, exactly!
Manifesto of his poetry is “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of one living”, consisting of a tiger shark of more than 4 meters length placed in formaldehyde in a showcase. That work became a symbol of British art of the nineties and its sale in 2004 made Hirst the most expensive living artist after Jasper Johns.
“For the love of God” is a sculpture of 2007 that consists of a human skull cast in platinum enriched with 8,601 diamonds with $100 million market value. Hirst wants to show how the skull, symbol of death, is now abused, is a commodity like any other (on shirts, bags, jewelry …) so why not make it valuable? At the end for the skull of man what matters? What if you do not want wealth, money, success? These material aspects of daily modern life translated into art.
Happy Halloween, then, it is full of history and symbols of that dark fascination with death that always tickle mankind.