Famous Depictions of Death in Art
Death has remained a prominent subject matter in the art for many centuries, including in these famous works.
Art exists in every culture on the planet. While it has been in constant evolution throughout time, certain subjects have remained prominent for centuries. This includes mortality, death, and dying. Since these are universal experiences of the human condition, it makes sense that every culture’s art reflects these subjects.
Even the world’s greatest and most well-known artists have tackled these subject matters in their pieces. Below, we’ll discuss the most famous depictions of death in art.
This genre of Medieval art combines the works of many artists. During this dark time in European history, the “Black Death” killed an estimated 25-50 percent of Europe’s total population. Even artists who had formerly depicted joyful scenes turned to darkness, death, fear, disease, and devastation in their works. Commonly called “vanitas paintings,” this genre included very explicit and morbid depictions of death. The wide appearance of these subject matters in Medieval art illustrates just how profound effect death topics had on society at the time. One such example was The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Older in 1562. It depicted widespread death and disease, with death portrayed as an instrument of chaos to torment man. Its underlying message is that death felt inevitable and very near to many people during this dark period.
Salvador Dali – Christ of Saint John of the Cross
Dali was a Spanish surrealist artist best known for his technical skill and striking images in his paintings. This particular work was painted in 1951, and it portrays Jesus Christ mounted on the cross. Dali said a dream inspired it, and the painting depicts death in two separate ways. The top half of this work of art represents the pain and agony of death, which then slowly fades into a peaceful and healing landscape of light and union with God.
Vincent van Gogh – Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette
Vincent van Gogh was a dutch post-impressionist painter whose great fame found him only after his own death. With more than two thousand works of art in his collection, he covered many different subjects in his paintings. In this one, he used a monochromatic palette to depict a human skull smoking a cigarette. The subject of death is tackled directly with the inclusion of a skull, but also more subtly in the color palette devoid of vivid color or light.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres – The Death of Leonardo da Vinci
While you may not be familiar with the artist, you’ve surely heard of the subject of this 1818 painting. Ingres was a French Neoclassical painter who other artists highly influenced. This may have been why da Vinci was the subject of this piece. It depicts the King of France, Francis I, carrying da Vinci’s lifeless body. Many scholars believe it is meant to depict that peace can be found in death, even if you struggle in life as da Vinci did.
Caravaggio – The Entombment of Christ and The Beheading of St. John the Baptist
An Italian painter with a flair for capturing dark imagery in his work, Caravaggio painted death scenes frequently. The Entombment of Christ took him two years to complete from 1603-1604. It depicts two men carrying the lifeless body of Christ, and it is meant to portray both the loss associated with death and the feelings of mourning that accompany it. His other well-known depiction of death is The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. It stands at odds with the artist’s depiction of Christ’s death because this work depicts the act of graphic murder, including large amounts of blood and weaponry.
Contemporary Depictions of Death in Art
Although many of the most well-known depictions of death in art came in past centuries when violence, plagues, and natural disasters killed many thousands, it is still a frequent subject in art today. The 20th Century saw the emergence of more subtle nuances of death in art, however. Rather than skulls, blood, or lifeless bodies, contemporary artists have used symbols such as a black shade to represent death. One example is Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, which was meant to communicate a desensitized society that accepted death as part of life. Rather than using gruesome images of death, this series included symbols of death, such as an electric chair.
Although art will continue its perpetual evolution, depictions of death in the art are likely to remain constant. As one of the most affecting, universal experiences of the human condition, death and dying are ingrained within the human psyche. Suffice it to say, art imitates life – and death – and it will continue to do so in the future.