The Themes - An IntroThe Themes - An Introduction to Death

Death Info Discussion & Task A Deadly Challenge

Symbols of Death - (Page 3 of 4)

Every culture has a strong set of symbols associated with the rituals and practises of death. In Chinese culture belief in the after-life was very strong. Prominent men such as emperors and governors would have symbols of their wealth and power buried with them in elaborate tombs to accompany them to the afterlife - such as the Equestrian Figures.

In earlier centuries Chinese emperors would have had their real wives, servants and soldiers buried alive with them to accompany their spirits into the after-life. The most elaborate tomb discovered in China is that of the First Emperor Qin Shihuangdi who created an entire city underground in his tomb, which included the famous terracotta warriors.

In Western culture much of the symbolism is drawn from Christianity: in which eternal life was contrasted with a short and fragile earthly life.

In the Dutch Vanitas painting there are symbols that seek to remind viewers how short their time on earth is, for example the over-turned hour glass. Other symbols remind us to beware of being consumed by earthly passions - whether for knowledge (symbolised by the books); or military glory (the sword and armour). Finally the skull reminds us that death is an inevitability and that we should be mindful of our ultimate fate.

By contrast with the spirituality of the Vanitas painting, the engraving Pompe funèbre d' Elisabeth Therèse de Lorraine shows how the ritual of burial can be used to emphasise the worldly power and wealth of the deceased and her family.

In early modern Europe death was all around the living: in 1666 an outbreak of the Plague killed one in ten of the population of London. Many symbols of death emphasised how wealth, age or social standing were no barrier to death. In the image La Danse Des Morts you see Death leading away a jester whose time has come. Other figures in this book of engravings led away by Death include anyone from the pope to a farmer.

The same imagery is used in the Dagger and Scabbard - in which skeletons dance round wealthy lords and ladies, as well as priests and children.

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Depictions of Death
Symbols of Death
Mementos of the Dead