Featured photo: Michael Wolgemut, “The Dance of Death” (1493) from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel

Spiritualism, mortality, and demons; not just themes of spooky season! This week we’re diving into the history of macabre in art history, uncovering artist’s preoccupation with this dark and morbid theme from medieval cautionary tales to contemporary interventions.

Macabre in art refers to the grim atmosphere captured in the piece with an emphasis on the symbols and details of death. The term gained notoriety from its use in the French allegory, “la danse macabre.” The allegory represents Death in a series of images, either as a dancing skeleton or shrouded corpse–think grim reaper–mingled in with representations of people from every stage of life, wealth and health, dancing around a grave, waltzing to their imminent end.

Anubis weighing the soul of the scribe Ani, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, c. 1275 BCE.

Though the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians incorporated themes of death and allegorical representations of Death in their writings and religions, Thanatos and Anubis, respectively, more contemporary visual arts first saw the skeletal representation of Death around the 15th century. This depiction of Death was captured on the walls and in sculpture throughout European churches and engravings capturing the universality of death

Since then, artist’s have explored the darker and mystical side of the universe through the arts in an attempt to uncover the age old question of “what happens after death?”

Arnold Böcklin, “The Plague” (1898)

During the Late Middle Ages, Europe experienced the deadliest pandemic, the bubonic plague, which landed in 1347 and killed nearly one-third of the European population. The Black Death was one of the first major disease pandemics the modern world had encountered and shaped the visual arts and its relation to death. Images of the macabre decorated chapels and halls, peppered manuscripts and illuminated texts, and served as visual allegories to communicate the inevitability of death and to caution against immorality.

This major moment in human history has echoed throughout our understandings of death and the way in which artist’s grapple with this ultimate existential question. The overpowering collective consciousness of the weight of death due to the Black Death in addition to the realities of the Hundred Years War that ravaged Europe. The Dutch/Netherlandish Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) has been widely regarded as the grandfather of surrealism and celebrated for his groundbreaking depictions of biblical evils, demons, human vice and what awaits after death.

We are familiar with “Garden of Earthly Delights”, however the artist’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” (c. 1500) is also an exemplary work showcasing the dark narratives of evil temptation and the lure of the devil. The triptych chronicles the futile attempts by demons and other evil forces to coerce Saint Anthony from salvation. The central panel shows a hellscape of flames inhabited by terrifying creatures, ghost-like figures, dark and dangerous creatures, and eternally damned, tortured souls that try to lure Saint Anthony into debauchery and sin. Getting scared yet?

Hieronymus Bosch, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (c. 1500), Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

The Renaissance presented a visual lexicon that was largely more optimistic, searching for a rebirth from the darkness and death that clung like tar to the lives of Europeans. A distinct shift towards more realistic representations based in scientific study and discovery defined the era. However, themes of macabre still seeped into the visual arts of the time. Memento mori is latin for ‘remember that you die’ and is the language used to describe the artistic reminder of the inevitability of death.

German-Swiss painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) has been widely regarded as one of the greatest portrait artists of the 16th century. Rich in symbolism, his “The Ambassadors”, (1533) depicts a portrait of two powerful men, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve. At first glance, the work may seem like a common vanity portrait showcasing the material success of the men, however the optical illusion of a distorted skull in the lower half of the composition serves as an immediate reminder of the sitters’ mortality. To counter this grim reminder, the renaissance painter incorporated a partially concealed silver crucifix at the upper left corner symbolizing the hope of salvation from earthly sin and resurrection. Here, memento mori is two-fold, both acting as a reminder of the inevitability of death but also the hope of salvation.

Hans Holbein the Younger, “The Ambassadors” (1533), Copyright of the National Gallery

Moving swiftly along, we end up in 17th century Northern Europe. In particular, Dutch and Flemish artists were particularly apt at capturing the macabre in art. After the Protestant Revolution and the mass criticism of indulgent materialism of the Church and society, artist’s got creative with capturing the darker symbols of death and mortality in still life painting. ‘Vanitas’ are closely related to memento mori, however the emphasis in the artworks is on the worthlessness of material possessions, the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. Seemingly benign everyday objects like books, coins, floral arrangements, glassware, candlesticks, and the ever-present human skull were heavily loaded coded objects. The grotesque imagery such as worms wriggling between skull’s teeth, rotting fruit, and hunted game startled viewers into recognizing their own mortality.

Pieter Claesz, “Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill” (1628)

After the indulgent years of the 18th century Rococo and neoclassical artists celebrating all that is rich, decorative, scenographic, picturesque–as a major foil, this was also a period of massive revolution, nationalistic sentiment, a rejection of the aristocracy–a sharp dive into the dark fog emerged in the 19th century.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Dante and Virgil in Hell” (1850)

With the advent of modern photography, artist’s had an exceptional experimental tool at their disposal. On the heels of major philosophers and the Enlightenment, artists and society were more curious of the existential questions of life and what comes after. The auratic quality of the photograph was the trump card for artists, ‘proof’ that ghosts and spirits existed. The age of mainstream seances, tarot reading, ghost photography and the mission to prove the afterlife made an indelible mark on the canon of art history.

Moving away from skulls and fantastical scenes of imagined demons tempting human fate–amateur hour, amirite?–artist’s moved into the realm of the ‘real’ afterlife and the fascinating practice of spirit photography emerged.

A selection of William Mulmer photographs including Mary Todd Lincoln

The work of William Mumler (1832-1884) has become synonymous with ‘spirit photography’. The artist pioneered the art of capturing eerie ghostly silhouettes in portrait photography, seeingly proving the existence of ghosts in the afterlife. The Spiritualism movement in the 19th century incurred a heavy following in the United States largely due to the mass losses from the Civil War. Families reeling in grief sought to find any connection to the souls of the departed loved ones and found comfort in spirit photography. Mediums and seances peaked and helped grant the wishes of the bereaved.

Peter Manseau, curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, says that Spiritualism “It was a genuine religious movement that meant a lot to people at a time when the nation was going through mourning and loss like it had never had before…Mumler sold himself as someone who could not explain what was happening or why he was chosen to take these pictures,” says Manseau. “He was as astonished as everyone else that suddenly his camera could take pictures of ghosts.”

Mulmer was later exposed as having reused old negatives to create the ghostly images and arrested for fraud in 1869. Nonetheless, the spirit photography from Mulmer had a huge impact on the history of photography and birthed another form of the macabre in photography…ectoplasm.

Example of Craig and George Falconer photograph

Scottish brothers Craig and George Falconer incorporated similar processes of Mulmer in their photographs of similarly bereaved families after the atrocities of the First World War. Unlike Mulmer, the brothers Falconer used cotton wool and cut out “spirit” faces to create their images. The ectoplasm, cloud-like swirling forms invisible to the naken eye, only to be revealed in the final developed photograph, was meant to prove the existence of spirits. The brothers were arrested in South Africa in 1931 where two undercover policemen found the artist’s tools to create their fraudulent photos. However, artist’s across the United States and Europe also dabbled in the psychic photography trend producing their own ectoplasm photography using cheesecloth, chemical manipulation during development and reused negatives like Mulmer.

In contemporary art, socio-economic and political issues fueled my mass media and mass trauma have furthered the exploration of the macabre in art. Artists like Marc Quinn (b. 1964) and Damien Hirst (b. 1965) have explored the themes of mortality with particularly visceral materials.

Marc Quinn, “Self” (1991), © Marc Quinn. Photo: Marc Quinn studio. Courtesy: Marc Quinn studio

Quinn, in a quintessential contemporary artwork, has immortalized his own image in an exact bust of his head made entirely out of the artist’s frozen blood. “Self” (1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011) recalls connections to vampirism and Victorian bloodletting and is a shocking reminder of his mortality. The work, created in multiple iterations as the artist ages, raises immediate questions of preservation, the abject, self and what happens to the trace of a person after death. Visceral, revolting, complex, uncomfortable, taboo, and unique, the artist forces the viewer to engage and reflect on their own mortality and remembrance.

Hirst, the bad boy of the YBAs, is also no stranger to exploring themes of life, death and materialism. The artist’s “For the Love of God” (2007) was created with a platinum cast 18th century human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds including a pear-shaped pink diamond located in the forehead that is known as the Skull Star Diamond. The work acts as the ultimate memento mori, a reminder of the mortality of the viewer and the worthlessness of material goods–you are born with nothing and die with nothing.

Damien Hirst with “For the Love of God”

Contemporary practices seem to have come full circle with the medieval and renaissance masters who helped establish the visual lexicon in Western art history. At first beginning with the fantastical imagery of monsters and demons, artist’s have further explored and sought to answer the Ultimate question of the purpose of life, and our ultimate mortality.

There’s nothing like an existential crisis to scare you right out of your pants this Halloween…trick or treat…

Interested in More? Check out some selected resources to uncover more in this darker realm of art history:

Clément Chéroux and others, “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,” 2005

Elizabeth, “The Art of the Occult: A Visual Sourcebook for the Modern Mystic,” 2020