History of death and art

A major tradition in the study of death across cultures and time has been to demarcate distinctive death time periods in Western history. The most notable illustration is Philippe Ariès’s The Hour of Our Death, which propose an evolutionary model, in which death through several successive stages reverted from the tame to the savage state in the course of some fifteen centuries. He insisted on providing social context and maintaining methodological coherence, thus shifting from the study of attitudes towards death to a more sociological approach (mortuary customs and attitudes examined in their social context).

One of the central themes developed by Ariès is the “relationship between man’s attitude towards death and his awareness of self, of his degree of existence, or simply of his individuality.” According to him, the concept of death as a familiar and anonymous event was replaced by the suppression of death. Ariès traced the loss of the tame death to an increasing awareness of individual identity and a corresponding decline in the importance of the community, which he dated to the later Middle Ages.

Marianne Stokes, Death and the maiden

Tame death

Here death was considered a process that was both familiar and near, featuring a simple public and ritualistic ceremony largely controlled by the dying person and for which friends and family, including the children, were present. This attitude is typical of primitive societies, where rituals about sex, life and death gave rhythm to the existence. Human beings started dying from the first hour of their lives. The death-in-life motif was hailed citing classical examples, for instance, the customs of Roman Caesars, who were asked immediately after their election, from what stone they would order their tombstone to be made.

Death of self

With the devastating Black Plague, increasing individualism, and the weakening of traditional community ties (with perhaps a growing collective sense of the demise of the old feudal order), dying became the time when the true essence of oneself was assumed to be revealed. Although in the seventeenth-century death was a frequent, familiar and expected phenomenon, there was an immense anxiety about death expressed through recurring images of morbidity. The macabre iconography of this era, often featuring speaking corpses, worms devouring cadavers, skeletons has been variously interpreted. For some they were patent signs of man’s failure and the victory of death. For other, it was an era of a renewed appreciation of life and its possibilities. Indeed, a life was no longer subsumed within the collective destiny of the group, each moment of which would be judged by Christ after death. The Protestant Reformation contributed to this change, by shifting the locus of redemption from group ritual to personal conscience, and by challenging traditional ideas of the afterlife. It was at this time that people concerned themselves with their distinguishing characteristics, began writing autobiographies, became interested in drama and in the distinctions between roles and their occupants, and postulated the existence of an internal inner self. Philippe Ariès emphasized the relationship between the death of each individual and his awareness of being an individual. According to Ariès, attitudes toward death are intrinsically connected with the notion of individuality: in the mirror of his own death (in the speculum mortis) each man would discover the secret of his individuality. To assist in individuals’ mastery of their own deaths, an instructional manual on the art of dying, entitled Ars Moriendi, was to be a best seller for two centuries.

In art, the shift from a religious and collective death to more frightful vision clearly reveals the heightened anxiety about death asociated with the heightened sense of personal identity. In the 1300’s, renowned Italian artists such as Giotto painted solid graceful figures, using tranquil pastel tones and a three-dimensional, balanced sense of light and space. A prime example is this panel in Padua’s Arena Chapel, entitled Anne and Joachim, the Virgin Mary’s parents, at the Gate.

However, immediately after the Black Plague of 1348, figures in Italian art began taking on a more wooden, Byzantine quality, seemingly to wipe out the sensitive artistic advances in shape and light made in the 14th century. In the eyes of these artists, the Deity was no longer kind but rigid and uncompromising. Death was final, and no one’s prayers could intercede. This new psychologically darker Sienese style of painting comprises the “Black Death theory” of art.
The horror and death they saw around them profoundly affected painters, their world was a colder place. Marked by crowded, paranoid compositions, ugly, menacing faces, bright colors and increased violence, Black Death art is unbalanced and uneasy.

Between the end of the fourteenth and the middle of the seventeenth centuries, the “baroque” model of death predominated, a model characterized by exteriorization, ostentation and by a wealth of multiple gestures (the baroque also meant exuberant and external piety, theatrical ceremonial and majestic funerals).

Remote and imminent death

The XVIIIth century, with increasing secularization and the rise of science, views death as some rupture or a break with life rather than as part of a continuum, a matter better put out of mind.

Death of the other

The 19th century introduced the present “cult of dying” where the burden of concern was shifted from the dying individual themself to the “survivors”. Shifting from the death of oneself to the death of one’s significant others, Death came to be romanticized. The graveyard became the locus of somber and mournful dispositions relative to death; a place to “pay one’s respects”. The headstone and the evolution of the casket mark an increasing return to a striving for material immortality (egyptian, even). 

Great advances in science were inevitably accompanied by great reactions of mysticism. But to bring back the Christian methodology was not the aim of the Romantics. The Romantics wanted to rekindle humankind’s sense of awe, which they felt was both lacking in and detrimental to the modern world; the frisson of the unknown. It became the self-imposed task of literature to perform the function no longer performed by religion, and certainly not by science.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has been one of the most creative movement of the XIXth. Artists like Ford Madox Brown, John Everett Millais, John Ruskin, Holman Hunt, Arthur Hughes, Gabriel Rossetti, Alma-Tadema, Waterhouse and Leighton, among others protested the outmoded academic conventions of the day and wanted to emulate the naturalism of the Italian Renaissance painters before Raphael. A similar task was performed by literature with Herder, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, and Novalis among the Germans, Baudelaire from the France, or Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats in England.

Invisible death.

With the increasing privatization of death and the institutionalization of the dying, by 1950 death denial was to become the reigning orientation. From the natural sciences came the perspective that, in the broad scheme of things, individuals’ lives and deaths are inconsequential.

The existentialist contribution to the century is present in the work of Heidegger, Mallarmé, Blanchot for which death is the ground of art, language and man’s consciousness itself but cannot be explained by conventional and descriptive methods.