Just as all of life’s excitement and joy is found in art, so too can we find all of life’s potential darkness. Fear, loss, war, and perhaps most powerful of all, death. Death has, without a doubt, been one of the most commonly represented subject of art. It comes as no surprise that something so imminent, and yet, unknown, has been represented in such a variety of creative ways throughout history.
So without further ado, here is our list of the Most Popular Depictions of Death in Art.
The Most Popular Depictions of Death in Art
Reaching it’s height in Europe in the mid 1300’s, The Black Plague (or the Black Death) was a plague that could be contracted either by a bite from an infected flea or rat, or through diseased air. The first wave of the Black Death killed an estimated 25–50 percent of Europe’s population. The Plague’s effect on medieval society cannot be overstated, and it’s presence and the fear it inspired can be felt through its representation in various aspects of medieval culture. Artists who had formerly painted joyful scenes now turned to images of death, disease, and devastation. Religious works also turned to dark depictions of death, focusing on imagery representing the torments of hell.
Funeral procession scenes— already very commonly represented in art— were painted showing anonymous plague victims as they were led to the grave. As more people began to see the plague as some sort of divine punishment of society, the church stressed the importance of religious repentance as the means to combat the epidemic. This attitude is well reflected in works like the Limbourg brothers’ painting, The Procession of Saint Gregory (1300). Other common representations of victims included the “death bed” scene, in which a dying person is represented surrounded by loved ones. These paintings began to vividly represent realistic imagery of illness and disease, as death became a grim reality.
Death as a Reaper Of Souls
Today, one of the most immediately recognizable representations of death is the Grim Reaper. Though today he is mostly found on heavy metal album covers, he was a realistic figure of terror in the medieval world. The idea of death as a reaper holding a scythe for harvesting souls is a 15th-century invention. Though inspirations from Greek mythology included the Titan named Kronos, and the boatman of the river Styx in the underworld named Charon.
Before its modern form was fully developed in Europe, death was usually portrayed as a corpse holding a crossbow bolt, dart, or some other weapon. It was during the plague that Europe began portraying death as a skeleton wielding a scythe and wearing a black robe. He was usually portrayed as a guide who would appear at the subject’s appointed hour of death to lead them away. In later tales, however, the reaper also took life himself, and victims could cheat or bargain with him. Death as a reaper can be found in basically every form of art throughout Europe. He has appeared in plays, songs, poetry, and romantic literature. While the Bible never portrayed death as a reaper, many artists from the 15th century onward used this motif in biblical art. Gustave Dore’s engraving of Death on a Pale Horse (1865) is a particularly famous and dramatic example.
The Dance of Death
A belief developed throughout the plague years that the dead could rise from the city’s cemeteries and draw any unlucky passersby into a ghoulish dance of death, or “danse macabre.” These beliefs, fueled by period poetry about the increasingly obvious inevitability of death, quickly found their way into European art as an allegory about mortality, which gained widespread popularity. The message is clear in the danse macabre: nobody escapes death, so it is wise to prepare your soul for its time of reckoning.
Artistic representations of the danse macabre portrayed all members of the hierarchy of classes, from pope to commoner child, engaged in daily routine as they were forced into death’s waiting arms. The motif reached its ultimate expression in Hans Holbein the Younger’s woodcuts and verses The Dance of Death (1538). Another excellent and renowned example is Bernt Notke’s painting, Danse Macabre. This amazing and elaborate piece, displaying men and woman moving in dance with frightful skeleton-like figures of death, was sadly destroyed during bombings in World War II (how fitting).
Art as Protest
For many marginalized communities, art has acted as a form of expression and social commentary. One powerful example is the twin symbols of the cross and the lynching tree. Black Americans, suffering under Jim Crow laws, used art to make a connection between the crucifixion of Christ and the lynching victim (see: James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree). Art in ghettos and within concentration camps during WWII acted as a form of catharsis and political engagement under brutal conditions. Today, art is still used as a form of protest and as a way of commenting on social ills, especially for communities who continue to deal with the consequences of untimely death caused by racism and bigotry.
Triumph de la Mort
Much more disturbing than the dance of death, the “triumph of death” motif was another theme that was common among medieval artists. Like the dance, the underlying message was that mortality is inevitable, but unlike the danse macabre, the triumph de la mort theme depicts death as an instrument of chaos and destruction. Especially associated with times of war and plague, this theme dates back to at least the 1400s, as it was already a widespread idea when an unknown artist painted The Triumph of Death (1445) in the court of Palazzo Sclafaniin, Palermo in Southern Italy. This magnificent fresco features a bow-wielding skeleton riding a skeletal horse and shooting arrows at villagers going about their daily routines.
The undisputed masterpiece of this theme is The Triumph of Death (1562) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In the painting, a once-peaceful village is shown in a state of chaos and fear, as it is attacked by an army of reapers and corpses. The Triumph of Death is widely considered one of the most important paintings of its time. As long as there is war, famine, pestilence, and death itself, Bruegel’s masterpiece will continue to be a painting that disturbs us even as it resonates.
Death and the Maiden
The theme of death and the maiden can be traced all the way to ancient Greece and the story of Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades and brought to the underworld. One of its themes is familiar— that death overcomes all— but in the 15th century, the theme began to gain unique features and became overtly sexual. The women embraced in the arms of corpses or skeletons were now engaged in an intimate intercourse with death.
This strongly erotic imagery, sometimes used by artists to justify paintings of nudes to the church, was used again and again throughout the 15th century onward. One painting in a series painted between 1518 and 1520 by Hans Baldburg Grien depicts a Madonna-like nude figure grasped by a corpse while sperm and fetuses (symbols of the renewal of life) revolve around them. A similar death-related theme that rose up in art of this period is called “the three ages of man,” although it usually depicted women. Art of this kind would represent the different stages of life, with a figure shown as a child, a young adult, and a middle-aged woman. In the last, death would be shown standing to lead the subject to the underworld. A good example is Grein’s The Three Ages of Man and Death (1510).
The Grateful Dead
The motif of the “grateful dead” is more commonly associated with folklore and literature. Legends about the grateful dead revolve around two basic themes: in the first, someone performs a service for someone who is dead, such as taking care of unpaid debts, and is rewarded in some way by their spirit. In the second, someone in need of help goes to a cemetery and prays for assistance. The dead then rise from their graves to aid the living. The first theme dates back to Old Testament times, and was later picked up in literature. The second theme can be seen in a fresco called The Legend of the Grateful Dead, painted in Switzerland by an unknown artist in the early 16th century. It shows a man being chased by a band of thieves into a graveyard, where he kneels to pray. Before the thieves can reach him, the corpses of the dead rise from their graves to defend the man with sticks and scythes, thankful for the prayers that will allow them to rest in peace.
The message of the grateful dead stories is much different from the other death-related themes of European art on this list. This may be because memories of the plague were receding and more people were allowing themselves to see a future world. The grateful dead motif in art reminded the living to think of their loved ones, and to remember those who were gone.