Happy Halloween! As skeletons in all shapes and sizes are invading shopfronts and front gardens, we dug up some of our very own skeletons from the collection to explore how their meanings in art change with their context...
The anamorphic portrait below, currently on display in the Library at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, shifts between a skull and a portrait of a wealthy lady, depending on your perspective. The image itself is impermanent, an optical illusion. It is a memento mori, a powerful reminder that death is lurking under fleeting external appearances.
Danse macabre scenes like The Dance of Death series printed by Wenceslaus Hollar show skeletons haunting various characters including members of the clergy and nobility, misers and gamblers, a child and an old man and woman. They make the message even clearer: death spares no one, regardless of their age, wealth or social status.
Memento mori resolutely found their way into 17th-century artworks. At the centre of George Jamesone’s self-portrait is a still life with several such reminders, including a suit of armour, a shield with a skull and crossbones, and an hourglass reminding us of the passage of time.
Jamesone is holding a palette and brushes, the tools of his trade, and gestures towards the background showcasing his accomplishments as a painter. He is now recognised as Scotland’s first native-born portrait painter of note. Portraits capture a sitter’s appearance at a particular moment, forever after: death inevitably comes to us all, but the painter and his sitters live on in his art.
Beyond the grave
Something similar is suggested in Aegidius Sadeler’s portrait of his friend, the painter Bartholomaeus Spranger.
The print is crawling with reminders of mortality as Spranger mourns his wife, Christina Muller. Her portrait on the right, after a painting by Spranger, is placed on top of a sarcophagus and behind a putto holding a skull to symbolise her death. She is flanked by personifications of her virtues in life, piety on the left and wisdom, represented by Minerva, on the right. Winged Father Time with his scythe stands between the living artist and his dead wife. He is holding up an hourglass to warn the stab-happy skeleton representing Death that Spranger’s time is not yet up. Spranger is surrounded by personifications of painting, sculpture and architecture.
The trumpets of Fame on the top left celebrate Spranger’s accomplishments as an artist. He cannot re-join his wife yet; he has some time left to create masterpieces that will ensure that his fame outlasts him and defies the transience of human life.
Vanity of vanities
According to the caption, Nathaniel Parr’s image of Louisa Maria Teresa Stuart shows her at her toilet. She was the youngest child of the deposed and exiled King James II and Mary of Modena.
Vying for our attention, however, are a skull and its mirror image at the centre of the composition. Significantly, the mirror is turned away from the princess. She died of smallpox, and the small print at the bottom of the caption reveals the full meaning of the print: ‘died Aprill 18, 1712, aged 20’.
Louisa Maria’s portrait is combined with a type of still life called vanitas, composed of objects that overtly symbolise vanity, the meaninglessness of earthly pursuits in the face of death. The crown, orb and sceptre in front of the skull reference the sitter’s royal status. Together with the mirror and jewels, they signify the transience of appearances and possessions on earth, represented by the globe. The fleeting sounds of music are suggested by a silent cello turned away from any would-be players. The pocket watch, like the hourglasses in other works, acts as a reminder of the passage of time.
The Bible behind the skull shows extracts from Ecclesiastes, from which the vanitas still life gets its name: ‘Vanity of vanitys [sic], saith ye Preacher, vanity all is vanity.’ The print commemorates the death of a specific person but conveys a much more general message about mortality.
Heralds of death
Illustrating the depiction of skulls, or ‘mortheads’, in a much more specific, practical situation, these are the first and fourth in a series of four engravings depicting the funeral procession for John Leslie, 7th Earl and 1st Duke of Rothes in 1681. Leading the procession, at the top of the first print, are mourners carrying ‘gumpheons’, or funeral banners, which show the words ‘Memento Mori’ (remember death) above a skull and crossbones, and ‘Fugit Hora’ (the hour flies) with a winged hourglass. A larger version of the skull banner appears on ‘The great Gumpheon or Mort Head’ later in the procession. In the final print, the coffin is carried beneath a canopy and a pall, or mortcloth, which are entirely covered with skulls and tears, the Duke’s cipher DIR and his coat of arms. The motif reappears on the horses drawing the coach. Although the original drawings for this print have not been found, the images are useful in showing what a funeral in seventeenth century Scotland may have looked like, and the appearance of skulls among the heraldic items is confirmed by a written document from another funeral of the period.
Medicine and murders
Rev. John Barclay retrained as an anatomist and started lecturing on the subject in Edinburgh in 1797. John Syme picked up on a common trope by painting Barclay next to a skull as a direct reference to his profession as an anatomist. When, in 1825, he became too ill to teach, another famous Edinburgh anatomist and a pupil of Barclay’s took over the lessons at his anatomy school in Surgeons’ Square: Dr Robert Knox.
In 1827-8, the murderers Burke and Hare sold the bodies of their victims to Knox for dissecting during his anatomy classes. The discovery of these murders shook Edinburgh to its core. When Edouart created this silhouette around 1830, Knox’s association with the Westport Murders would have been fresh in people’s minds: the skull gives this sinister portrait a chilling undertone. Although Knox was officially cleared from having had any knowledge of the murders, his public image never recovered.
The ninettenth-century anatomists’ emphasis on dissection in studying the human body owes much to the 16th century. Dissections, which had been forbidden by the church, became a key way to learn more.
The invention of the printing press meant that new medical ideas could spread across Europe in the form of illustrated books. The frontispiece to French physician André du Laurens’s medical treatise Historia anatomica humani corporis published in Frankfurt in 1600 unites both of these elements. The dissected figures to the left and right of the author’s portrait are copied from Andreas Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica of 1543 and show skin stripped away to reveal the muscles, ligaments and bones underneath.
Vesalius’s book was a milestone in modern anatomy as it revised many accepted truths that had stayed unchallenged since Galen (c.130 AD - c.210 AD), encouraged dissection as a way to learn more about the human body and came with detailed illustrations based on direct observation. The skeletons, here, fulfil a very practical purpose in helping advance medicine.
Nonetheless, the artist of Du Laurens’s frontispiece has not been shy about also reminding viewers of the threat of death: at the top of the image, a skeleton with a snake slithering through its eye socket, surrounded by a scythe, hourglass and shovel, is pointing its crossbow straight at us.