Given the great unifying truth of mortality, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the skull is one of the oldest and most universal symbols; it can be found in art, fashion and jewelry spanning centuries and from different cultures around the world.
In Mesoamerica, the head was often referred to as the “locus of individuality,” and in many Aztec and Mayan cultures, the skulls of defeated warriors were often retained and proudly displayed. At the archaeological site Chichen Itza the Tzompantli, or Platform of the Skulls, has a facade covered in rows of relief carved skulls, with each skull corresponding to a victim sacrificed on site. By 300 A.D., Mexico’s Day of the Dead ceremonies used skulls to invoke themes of mortality and the transient nature of life. Mexico’s art and murals are often cited as a source of inspiration for 20th century American artists, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, who repeated the skull motif in her work.
This tradition continued in Europe in the mid 1300s, after the bubonic plague (The Black Death) killed over a quarter of the population. The skull began to show up in European decorative arts (multiple churches throughout the continent have entire walls and ceilings decorated with skulls and bones) and by the 15th century, the skull found its way to jewelry known as memento mori. Translated from the Latin as “remember you must die,” memento mori jewelry was meant to remind the wearer of their own mortality and impending demise.
Similar to the contemporaneous Dutch Vanitas paintings, the 17th century versions of this jewelry relies on macabre iconography—skeletons, skulls and crossbones, hourglasses—as statements of life's transiency. Given the short life expectancy of the time, acknowledging the inevitability of death served as a simple reminder to appreciate life and helped assuage fear.
In the mid 1800s, after the death of Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, there was a popular shift from memento mori to memorial jewelry, or mourning jewelry. Instead of reminding the wearer of their own mortality, these pieces were a reminder of lost loved ones and often integrated the hair of the deceased. Freeman's Nov. 15 American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts auction features The Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch, comprised of over 150 pieces of memento mori and mourning jewelry, with over 25 lots incorporating skulls/skeletons.
After the turn of the century, mourning jewelry fell out of favor, and the skull retreated from popular fashion until a revival in the 1960s, when rock royalty like Keith Richards took to wearing skulls. In 1976 Andy Warhol printed his six-paneled work Skulls, thought by many to be a part of his interest in evoking the human condition. Warhol once said of death that he didn’t “believe in it because you’re not around to know it’s happened. I can’t say anything about it because I’m not prepared for it.”
Artist John Cutrone famously said “to paint a skull is to paint a portrait of everyone in the world.” Two subcultures, bikers and the gothic counter culture which branched off from the punk rock scene, with bands like Souixsie and the Banshees and Joy Division at the forefront, embraced skulls and other morbid imagery.
In 2007 artist Damien Hirst made headlines with his sculpture “For the Love of God” – which featured the skull of a 35 year-old man from the 1700s, fully encrusted in 1,106.18 carats of diamonds over a platinum cast. The piece sold for a staggering $100 million. High fashion houses like Alexander McQueen have also embraced the skull, expanding its appeal from artists and musicians and the underground to a more mainstream culture.
Stop by Freeman’s from Nov. 10-14 to view the American Furniture, Folk & Decorative Arts exhibition.