death's head

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death's head The figure of the death's head has been a prominent symbol of human mortality and the vanity of life in Western culture. Whether it appears in the hands of Shakespeare's Hamlet or as an emblem for a 1980's heavy metal band, the human skull brings death to mind; as a well-known and popular image, its primary purpose is to draw attention to the end of life. Although the death's head has roots in more macabre images of the transi, or rotting, worm-infested corpse, the meanings of the death's head, and the animated skeleton in general, have multiplied over the last several centuries.

The skull is the most recognizably human element of the entire skeletal frame; it is also a strange, disconcerting object to reflect on because the fleshless face, hollow eyes, and bared teeth anticipate the future state of all who contemplate it. When the skull is detached from the rest of the skeleton and inserted into a particular context, it communicates a general message about the human condition. This message can be related to inevitable change and dissolution, Christian conversion, or simply existential horror; the supporting iconographic field of images usually determines the symbolic valences of the death's head.

As historian Philippe Ariès argues, the appearance of the skull in a variety of artistic expressions and everyday objects, beginning in the sixteenth century, was linked to a new sensibility about life known as the vanities. The sentiments associated with the vanities expressed a range of rather sombre, melancholy notions, including the swift passage of time, the fragility of human life, and the centrality of death in all human affairs. Whereas the earlier expressions of the macabre often imagined death as a supernatural threat existing outside of human nature, the vanities reconsiders the power of death as an integral condition of life itself. The ideas tied to these sentiments related both to distinctly religious strategies for conversion, and to more secular musings about the brute facts of physical death and the transitory nature of this world. Indeed, after the sixteenth century the death's head becomes one of the most popular versions of the memento mori theme: ‘Remember, you must die!’

The range of possible meanings identified with the death's head depends very much on cultural setting. In Puritan New England, for example, this symbol had specific religious value to the community understanding of death. Cotton Mather captured the common religious assumptions associated with contemplating the death's head when he wrote: ‘That man is like to die comfortably, who is every Day minding himself, that he is to die shortly. Let us look upon every thing as a sort of Death's-Head set before us, with a Memento mortis written upon it.’ In the iconography of early New England cemeteries, the death's head was combined with an array of images, including scythes, crowns, hourglasses, and wings, to represent both the swiftness of time and the possibilities of spiritual regeneration.

In more recent times, the symbolism of the death's head has less to do with the vanities theme and more to do with modern fears and anxieties about violence and death. Although it has retained its function as a memento mori, the death's head does not always lead to melancholy contemplation of the shortness of life and inevitable decay. It can often bring to mind the presence of evil in the world and, in many cases, it serves as a general symbol alerting individuals to impending mortal danger.

Gary Laderman

Bibliography

Ariès, P. (1991). The hour of our death. Oxford University Press, New York.


See also death; skull.