Halloween originated with the Celts some 2,000 years ago as a celebration of their new year on November 1st. On the night of October 31st , they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed the ghosts of the dead returned to the land of the living. One of the quintessential symbols of the holiday is the skeleton and this Halloween, we’ve pulled four skeletons out of the Carlton Hobbs closet:
Two genres in art are specifically devoted to reminding us of our own mortality and the transience of earthly possessions and vices. “Memento Mori,” from the Latin “Remember you will die,” is a genre found in painting and sculpture, particularly funeral art and architecture. The most popular symbols found in these works are skeletons or skulls. Extinguished candles, urns of flowers and timepieces such as clocks and hourglasses are also present as reminders of our fleeting existence in this world. A gouache depicted in figure 1 shows an artist in his studio. On the canvas before him is painted an urn of flowers and fruits, characteristic symbols of memento mori painting. A further symbol of death, the owl, is perched on the easel. An actual urn with flowers sits on the table above a second canvas of the same subject. Behind the easel stands a skeleton donning a laurel wreath, suggesting to the viewer that our victories in life are transient as we will all someday die.
A second closely related type of symbolic still life painting is the “Vanitas,” Latin for “vanity.” Vanitas paintings contain the same symbols of mortality, but may also include symbols of vanity (such as mirrors and musical instruments), expressing the emptiness and worthless nature of worldly goods. Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz features the themes of death and mortality prominently in his painting and sculpture, including one of his most famous works, the painting “Two Young Girls” or “The Beautiful Rosine” (1847), seen in figure 2. In this work, a beautiful young nude stands face to face with a hanging skeleton. Its skull is labeled “La Belle Rosine.” Although there is no physical mirror present, the young woman is essentially staring at her future self and eventual passing; it is a confrontation between beauty and death. While the original completed work hangs in the Wiertz Museum in Brussels, the present painting is almost certainly the artist’s prototype.
In figure 3 we see an oil painting of a very interesting figure where the contrast between death and life could not be more explicit. The woman depicted is, in fact, split in half. On the right she is painted in the flesh, while on the left she is transformed into a rotting corpse, with worms and snakes wriggling about her bones. Behind the skeleton on the wall hangs a painting of wilting flowers in a vase, while on the right a billowing curtain and pilaster provide the backdrop for the sentient half of the woman.
Lastly, we have an engraving entitled “Life and Death Contrasted, or, An Essay on Woman” (figure 4). Once again, this picture is shows a woman halved: on the left, she is painted in elaborate aristocratic costume surrounded by her earthly pleasures, such as books and playing cards. On the right we see only her skeleton, with a skull and bones at the foot of an obelisk. The obelisk is covered in proverbs, bible verses and sermon excerpts decrying worldly pursuits and reminding us, and women in particular, that they should be wary of their mortal pursuits and striving toward heavenly salvation. Check back for a future blog on this painting, when we explore more of the symbolism in depth!
From the Carlton Hobbs Team have a Happy Halloween!