How Art Dealt with Death Throughout its History

Art History

March 13, 2017

The lingering sense of the end and the tension of the inevitable death are the foremost of the inborn human fears. The death art images, which are born out of these uncertainties and the deep desire to understand the full circle of life, are created concurrently as reminders and celebrators of life, and as magical images, which carry spells to a better passing and understanding of the other side. Much more than just paintings full of skulls, decaying flowers, dark creators, and the Grim Reaper, death art images are decisive forms which explain how each period of human history and each culture perceived death, this inevitable presence and the end which awaits us all.

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Pier Francesco Cittadini - Vanitas Still Life Painting. Image via

The Death Art for the Living - Dark, Creepy, Popular

Many of the death art images, as mentioned above, have been created for the sole purpose of repose, and reflection upon life itself. During the medieval period, extremely popular were vanitas paintings, a category of symbolic works of art, which typically took shape as elaborate still life paintings. Common in the medieval funerary art, such works frequently included symbols such as the skull, decaying flowers, bubbles, hourglasses, musical instruments, and watches. Each of these carried various allegorical and symbolic meanings and as such skull was a reminder of the certainty of death, the rotten fruit was used to represent decay, while bubbles stood for the suddenness of death and fragility of life. Apart from still lifes, the most surviving examples of this form of art is in sculpture as well. During Renaissance, such motifs gradually became more indirect and many of the still life paintings or portraiture held a certain detail symbolizing our mortality among rich representation of the earthly delights. During the Baroque, popular theater performances acted out this moralizing tales in order to remind the viewers of the transience of our existence[1].

Reflecting the harshness of the medieval existence, these images could be extremely morbid and explicit, following a similar path of obsession with death as in Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying), and the Memento Mori (Remember That You Will Die). Apart from the famous Dance of the Dead frescos, the latter took shape in various thumbs and architecture elements, and as various tales and celebrations of different folklores and cultures. These pieces or objects needed to carry a message that all of the earthly delights are transitory and that death, in the end, wins over all.

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Hans Holbein the Younger - The Ambassadors. Image via

The Death Art for the Dead

The famous Egyptian book of the Dead is a perfect example of the work of art created for the sole purpose of helping the soul pass to the other side. Elaborately illustrated, the book is, in fact, filled with spells which help the passing soul reach its final destination while also providing guidance on how to gain continuation of their success in the afterlife. This idea of carrying with oneself the fruits of one’s labor prompted many rulers, pharos, and kings, to build elaborate thumb stones, and pyramids which were filled with such treasures. Aided with the ancient encaustic technique many of the thumb stones and masks placed on the dead person were painted and are some of the richest examples of death art images. During the Renaissance, great Italian sculptors put their skills and craftsmanship towards the building of gisant, a sepulchral sculpture that often presented a recumbent effigy or the person dying. The typical gisant depicts the deceased in eternal repose, awaiting the resurrection in prayer or holding attributes of office and clothed in the formal attire of his social class or office. Grand and elaborately crafted some of the most celebrated architectural achievements were sites and objects build as the eternal home of a certain ruler. Such buildings, dead mask paintings, were equally about the living as they were about the dead person. Helping the living to come to terms with one’s loss are death art images and objects which aid the grieving process. Some of the best examples are from the tradition of miniatures which were dedicated to the deceased. Small artworks inside showcased the passing soul, while the front often showcased images from their lives, or were decorated with various patterns and of the dead’s hair.

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Damien Hirst For the Love of God. Image via

Modern and Contemporary Representation of Death in Art

The above two passages showcase some of the more traditional and classical representations of death, typically, as we have attempted to showcase taking form as either a moralizing painting, as miniature objects, death masks, or elegant thumbstones.

During the 20th-century, as avant-garde ideas and experimentation rebelled against the traditional cannons of art history, the birth of abstract art and of expressionistic approach to art making forever changed the representation of death in art. The idea of death or of a tragic end no longer needed to have such typical symbols but could be an underlining current of an expressionistic landscape painting with dark crows as is one of the last paintings Vincent van Gogh ever painted Wheatfield with Crows or in form of an expressive portraiture or satirical artworks of various German painters showcasing the horrors and devastations caused by wars[2]. Here, typical death symbols were not applied but the overall atmosphere showcased that death was lurking behind the corner. In some of the most abstract pieces the use of black color carried ideas of death, as much as the blue pigment represented spirituality and green connection with nature.

With the birth of postmodernism and contemporary art, the macabre thematic was approved and death art images moved from being symbolic to a quite literal representation as did Andy Warhol Car Crash series of works of Damien Hirts or a number of street artists display[3]. All of them showcased one thing, that death for the creative mind is one of the strongest inspirations since art began.

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artist Editors’ Tip: Art and Death

This highly sensitive and beautifully written piece looks closely at the way contemporary Western artists negotiate death, both as personal experience and in the wider community. Townsend discusses, but moves beyond, the "spectacle of death" in work by artists such as Damien Hirst to see how mortality - in particular the experience of other people's death - brings us face to face with profound ethical and even political issues. He looks at personal responses to death in the work of artists as varied as Francis Bacon, Tracey Emin and Derek Jarman, whose film Blue is discussed here in depth. Exploring the last body of work by the the Kentucky-based photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and Jewish American installation artist Shimon Attie's powerful memorial work for the community of Aberfan, Townsend considers death in light of the injunction to "love they neighbor."


  1. Ranum, P., Western Attitudes Towards Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974
  2. Townsend, C., Art and Death, I.B Tauris, 2008
  3. Ravenal, J., B., Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2000


All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Adriaen van Utrecht Vanitas Still Life with Bouquet and Skull. Image via; Vanitas Painting - Selfportrait. Probably by Clara Peeters. Image via; Jacques Louis David - Marat assassinated, detail. Image via

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