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to resemble the dead, and displayed in the home.

Similar plaster skulls have also been found in Syria and Jordan. 3 Thus, the
first use of
the human skull in art seems to have been funerary in nature, a memorial of sorts. And thus began a long history, continued
to this very
day, of remembering and celebrating the memory of the dead with art.
The ancient Zapotec and Mixteca people of Oaxaca and Puebla had a practice similar to the inhabitants of Jericho. The skulls of
ancestors were mixed with ivory, bamboo, jade, turquoise, and other minerals to show the status of the ancestor. There are
examples that have been recovered from the Monte Alban site outside Oaxaca, dating anywhere from 500 B.C. to 900 A.D.
These have
even been compared to the famous Damien Hirst piece, "For the Love of God." 5 It's easy to see how such a comparison could
be made.

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Tracing the History of the Human Skull in Art

Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record about 195,000 years ago 1. The earliest human artistic
representations date
from around 100,000 B.C.2 The earliest verifiable artistic use of the human skull, however, did not occur until around 7000 B.C.
JerichoSkull, Western Oaxaco or Puebla,
(in modern 1400-1521
day Palestine).3 This also happens to be one of the oldest inhabited cities on the planet. Archeologists have
discovered the
remnants of more than 20 successive settlements in the area dating back to around 10,000 B.C. 4 This would imply that Jericho
sprung up For the Love of God, Damien Hirst, 2007
right around the same time that humans were able to abandon a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in exchange for permanent
settlements. With such permanent settlements came permanent graves, and hence the handling of human remains for burial.
Artificial cranial deformation (or head binding) is a form of body modification in which the skull is intentionally deformed into
an elongated,
rounded or flat shape. This is usually done during infancy, while the skull is still pliable, by using a crudely engineered device
such as a
cradleboard. It was once commonly practiced in numerous unrelated cultures separated both geographically and
chronologically, and
though far more rare, it still occurs in some cultures today. It's use most likely predates written history, but the earliest written
record is
from Hippocrates in 400 B.C.6 It is known to have been practiced by the Huns7 and Alans8 in the Old World, by the Maya 9 and
Inca10 in
Central and South America, and by numerous different North American tribes like the Chinookan 11,12 and Choctaw.13 Some
instances have also been found in Tahiti, Samoa, and Hawaii, among other places. 14

Proto Nazca deformed skull, c 200-100


Plaster skull from Jericho, 7000-6000 B.C.

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, Neolithic Period, Painting by Paul Kane, showing a
about 8000-7500 BC Chinookan child in the process of having
its head flattened, and an adult after the
The common practice at the time was to bury the bodies beneath the home. In most cases, the skull was removed first. After
any flesh, the face and head were remodelled with plaster, and shells or cowries were used in place of the eyes. They were
then painted
While some might argue that this is not art, I prefer to categorize it as a form of body modification, alongside piercing,
implants, and tattooing. It was probably performed to signify a group affiliation or as a sign of social status in ancient
cultures. It is also
possible it was done to create a more aesthetically pleasing appearance. 15 All of these are still very much the same reasons
that body
modification is done today.

Skull implants.

Rick Genest (aka Zombie Boy).

Skull scarification.

Skull racks, or tzompantli, were a type of scaffold-like construction used to display rows and columns of human skulls, sort of
like a large
macabre abacus.16 Their use has been documented in several Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Toltec, Mayans, and
Aztecs. The
skulls usually came from war captives or sacrificial victims. They were in use from 600 A.D. to 1250 A.D. 17, though it is
possible they
were in use as early as 200 B.C. in the Zapotec civilization in modern Mexico. 18

Tzompantli or skull rack at the Templo

Mayor museum in Mexico City.

A tzompantli is illustrated to the right of a

depiction of an Aztec temple dedicated to Tzompantli skull rack base.
the deity Huitzilopochtli; from Juan de
Tovar's 1587 manuscript, also known as
the Ramrez Codex.

The Toltec capital of Tula, which flourished from 800 A.D. to 1200 A.D. in Central Mexico, were the first people in the area to
show a real
obsession with skulls and skeletons. The Toltec skull racks were large stone platforms with rows of skulls carved into the
sides.19 The
obsession was passed on by the Toltec to the Maya, who decapitated the losing players at their Chichen Itza ball courts and
displayed the
skulls on their tzompantli.20 The Aztecs brought the practice to yet another level due to their ongoing Flowery Wars. 21
Requiring a
constant and steady supply of sacrifices, they would conduct raids to capture enemy soldiers. 22 The heart of the captive would
be torn
from his chest, and then he would be pushed down the stairs in front of the temple. His limbs would be given to the warrior
who captured
him, for the purpose of cannibalizing.23 The skull, of course, would end up on a tzompantli. The tzompantli at Tenochitlan (the
largest of
the Aztec cities) had some 136,000 skulls in it.24
Excavated base of a small skull rack by the
Tzompantli skull rack at a Chichen Itza ball
Tzompantli or skull rack at the Templo
foundations of the Great Pyramid in court. Mayor museum in Mexico City.
Mexico City.

The tzompantli may have been an influence on the design of New Yorks well known Goldbar, considering the love of both
skulls and gold
displayed by cultures like the Aztecs. And because they preceeded the European ossuaries, and we know the Spanish and
witnessed them, it is certainly a possibility that the tzompantli influenced the design of the many ossuaries that followed.

The Goldbar in New York City

The modern artistic use of skulls in trees has it's origins with the Aztecs as well. According to the Popol Vuh (a corpus of mytho-
narratives of the Post Classic K'iche' kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands), when Hun Hunahpu (father of the Maya hero
Twins) was
killed by the lords of the Underworld, his head was hung in a gourd tree. 25 This, and the image of skulls in trees as if they were
fruit, is a
common indicator of a tzompantli.26 Such imagery continues to be used in art today, though modern artists probably remain
ignorant of
it's origins.
Aztec skull art was not limited to skull racks, however. In fact, the skull as a symbol was extremely important to the Aztecs,
and appeared
in art dedicated to many of their deities. The themes of warfare, death, fertility and renewal were often closely intertwined in
One 27 duties of the lower-middle classes skilled workers was the creation of jewelry to be worn by the nobility. The
of the
presence of one
or more skulls in such jewelry was indicative of a high ranking or upper class individual. One such item was a carved shell skull
found in the ceremonial center of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. This necklace is now part of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection,
and is
believed to have belonged to a high-ranking military commander. 28 Evidence of this comes from illustrations in the Codex
showing military commanders in full regalia, part of which appears to be just such a skull necklace. 29 A similar necklace, but
made of gold
and turquoise, was also found in Tenochtitlan. Based on the materials, it most likely belonged to someone in the rulership

Illustration from the Codex Mendoza depicting military

commanders in full regalia.

Aztec gold and turquoise skull necklace (detail).

Aztec Skull Necklace Carved from Shell.

There are many examples of Aztec sculpture with a skull theme as well, the majority of which are depicting deities. Coatlicue,
the "Mother
of the Gods", was the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon and stars. She was also the patron to women who died in
She was represented as a woman wearing a skirt of writhing snakes and a necklace of human hearts, hands, and skulls. 30
Xolotl was the
god of lightning, fire, sickness, and deformities. He was depicted as a skeletal figure. 31

Aztec sculpture of Coatlicue.

Standing figure of the god Xolotl. Nephritoid stone with shell

c. 1370-1521.


The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), focuses on remembering and honoring the departed, and it's roots
been traced back to the Aztec festival in honor of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess who ruled and watched over the dead.
festivals evolved from Aztec traditions into the modern Day of the Dead after synthesis with Spanish traditions. She now
presides over the
contemporary festival as well. Mictecacihuatl is known as the Lady of the Dead, since it is believed that she was born, then
sacrificed as
Theinfant. 32,33,34
holiday Mictecacihuatl
has spread throughoutwas represented
many withworld,
parts of the a defleshed
in turn body and with
influencing thejaw
of thetoskull
swallow the starsinduring
and skeleton the
art. There
day. 35 Modern
are similar
Day of the Dead
celebrations celebrations
in virtually every are filled
corner ofwith skull and
the world now,skeleton
from theimagery,
America'sincluding sugar
to Europe skulls,
and Asia. calaveras makeup,
It is perhaps one ofmasks,
the greatest
onmemory of theart
skull-themed dead), tattoos,
worldwide, atdolls,
least parade floats,
in recent etc.
times. 36-50
Day of the Dead celebrants.

Sugar skulls.

Mictecacihuatl, Muse national d'anthropologie de Mexico

Mexican political printmaker and engraver Jos Guadalupe Posada created a parody of an upper-class Mexican female entitled
Calavera Catrina, in which she was depicted as a skeleton in fashionable attire. This striking figure has since become
associated closely
with the Day of the Dead holiday, and Catrina figures are often part of the observances. The Catrina figure, and many other
elements of
the Day of the Dead, continue to influence artists today, such as Laurie Lipton. 51,52
Lady of the Dead Catrina doll.

La Catrina by Laurie Lipton.

La Calavera Catrina by Jos Guadalupe Posada.

The Buddhist use of the skull stems largely from religious beliefs and practices, and dates from at least the 6th century in the
form of the
kapala, a type a decorated skull cup, as recounted in the Dashakumaracharita. 53 While the use was largely ceremonial, the
could often be incredibly ornate, and they can certainly be classified as art. 54 The kapala, in similar fashion to the European
vanitas and
memento mori, served as a reminder of our mortality. 53 Skulls are donated by family members (even today) to Buddhist
monasteries in
places such as Tibet for just this purpose.55

Some figures in esoteric Buddhist imagery would be portrayed with a staff having three skulls (kapalas) impaled upon it,
referred to as a
khatvanga. The symbolism behind the elements of the khatvanga staff was very complicated, as explained by Beer in his
Handbook of
Tibetan Buddhist symbols.. The form of the Buddhist khatvanga was derived from an earlier, similar staff used by Indian
Shaivite yogis,
who were called kapalikas (skull bearers). Such staves were originally created entirely of bone. 56

Indian Shaivite Yogi (Kapalika).


Figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in their wrathful forms often display a crown of five skulls, where each skull represents the
death of a
negative quality (anger, desire, etc.) in Buddhist teaching. 55 This was originally part of an entire bone costume, first
mentioned in the
biography of Marpa the Translator (1012-1097). The complete costume was comprised of the crown, armlets, bracelets,
anklets, apron,
chest piece, earrings, and 3 separate necklaces. The bone costume is no longer in use though, and has been replaced by a
foldable painted crown.55,57,58
Vajrakila with a 5 skull crown (one on each of his three heads),
Bhairava, the wrathful form of Shiva, wearing a 5 skull holding a khatvanga.

Bone apron.

Statue of Vajrapani wearing a 5 skull crown.

A pair of dancing skeletons, called the Chitipati, appear in the tangkas (paintings used for teaching and meditation) among
Buddhists. They are sometimes referred to as the Lords of the Charnel Ground. Each of them holds a staff in the form of a
skull and
spinal cord, and typically one holds a kapala (skull cup). 59 This brings to mind the European Danse Macabre. Among the
Loseling monks, there is something known as "The Dance of the Lords of the Cemetery", in which the dancers don bright red
decorated with bones. The dance is meant to be symbolic of the temporary nature of life, much the same as in the Danse

A nineteenth-century Tibetan depiction of the Lords of the


Tibetan Cham Dance costume made of papier mache and fabric.

Chitipati sculpture from the Richard Harris collection.

Imagery of Hindu deities are full of symbolism. The dancing form of Lord Shiva is a great example. In addition to all the other
he is often pictured with a skull on his head, which is meant to symbolise his conquest over death. 60 His necklace is often
depicted as a
garland of skulls.61 Hindu deities that may be depicted with the kapala include Durga, Kl and Shiva, especially in his
Bhairava form.
Even Ganesha, when adopted into Tibetan Buddhism as Maharakta Ganapati, is shown with a kapala filled with blood. 62
Dancing Lord Shiva with skull crown.

The Chamunda, a form of Durga, seen in Halebidu temple of Hoysala architecture, in black or red color, is described as wearing
garland of severed heads or skulls (Mundamala). She is described as having four, eight, ten or twelve arms, holding a Damaru
trishula (trident), sword, a snake (nga), skull-mace (khatvanga), thunderbolt (vajra), a severed head and panapatra (drinking
vessel, wine
cup) or skull cup (kapala), filled with blood.62


Memento mori is Latin for "remember that you will die". 63 The phrase is believed to have come about in ancient Rome,
spoken to a
victorious general by his slave.64 In the arts, it was intended to be a reflection on mortality and the importance of the
afterlife in
comparison to the temporary earthly life. It was especially prevalent in European Christian art, which emphasized Heaven,
Hell, divine
judgement, and the salvation of the soul. To the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasize the emptiness and
fleetingness of
earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and to focus instead on the prospect of the afterlife. 65,66 While most often
separately, both the Danse Macabre and ossuary chapels and tombs are examples of memento mori just as much as any
paintings or
sculptures are.

Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation by Hans Memling, 1485

The Braque Family Triptych (Outer panels), 1452


My full history of the Danse Macabre is available here. In short, the Danse Macabre can be viewed as a subset of
memento mori.
An ossuary, in it's most basic form, is a depository for skeletal remains. 67 They have often been used where there is limited
space.68 The Zoroastrians of Persia were perhaps the first to employ them some 3,000 years ago, though they were simply
deep wells
with no decoration or artistry. They called them 'astudans' (which literally translates as 'the place for the bones'). 69 There are
stunning examples of ossuaries in Europe, most of which were connected to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox
churches.70 It was
Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
also practiced by the Jews during the time of the Second Temple. 71
Located in Rome, this church was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII. In 1631, Cardinal Antonio Barberini ordered the
remains of
thousands of Capuchin friars to be transferred to the crypt beneath the church. It now contains the remains of some 4,000
friars buried
between 1500 and 1870. The remains are arranged in elaborate Baroque and Rococo style, creating a detailed, beautiful, but
The of art. In true
once memento
rivalled mori
the Paris fashion, a as
Catacombs plaque in one
a tourist of the chapels
attraction, and is reads
said to"What you are now
have inspired bothwe
theused to be;
Sedlec what and
Ossuary we are
the you
will be."in Poland. It was visited by the Marquis de Sade in 1775. It contains a total of six named rooms: The Crypt of
Resurrection, The
Mass Chapel, the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, and the Crypt of
the Three
A pair of mummifed arms serve as a centerpiece in this mural. The Crypt of Pelvises.

The Crypt of Skulls.

The grim reaper, complete with scythe and scales, hangs
suspended from the ceiling.

San Bernadino alle Ossa

This church is located in Milan, Italy, and had it's beginnings as a small room built in 1210 to house bones from a nearby
cemetery. The
church itself was not built until 1269, and the actual Rococo-style decorating was not done until 1679 by Giovanni Andrea Biffi.
by fire in 1712, it was rebuilt and expanded upon. 75,76
Sedlec Ossuary
The Sedlec Ossuary (located in the Czech Republic) is one of my personal favorites, and it has an interesting story behind it. In
1278 the
abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec was sent to the Holy Land by the Bohemian king. He returned with a sample of dirt
Golgotha and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. Golgotha, for those who do not know, was the site of the crucifixion of
Christ, and
translates from the Aramaic as "place of the skull". This is something of a strange coincidence, as the church would eventually
come to be
filled with the skulls and skeletal remains of somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people. 77

Chapel Interior.

Entrance. Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms made with


The cemetery came to be overcrowded, especially after the Black Death ravaged the population in the 14th century, and the
Hussite Wars
in the 15th century. And so it was that in 1511, a single half-blind monk of the church was given the task of exhuming all the
skeletons and
stacking the bones in the chapel. And there they remained until 1870, when a woodworker by the name of Frantisek Rint was
given the
task of arranging all the bones into the ordered form they exhibit today. Four enormous pointed pillars, stacked with skulls,
occupy the
corners. An enormous chandelier, containing at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the
Frantisek Rint even added his signature, completed entirely in bone. 77

This chandelier contains at least one of Coins left as an offering.

every bone in the human body.

Signature of F. Rint written with bones.

This particular ossuary has also been very influential in media, being featured in numerous books and movies in one way or
another. It
was, for example, the influence for the lair of Dr. Satan in the Rob Zombie horror classic House of 1000 Corpses. 78

Scene from the film 'House of 1000 Corpses'. Scene from the film 'House of 1000 Corpses'.

Skull Chapel at Czermna

The Skull Chapel in Czermna is a chapel located in Kudowa-Zdrj, Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland. The chapel was built in
1776 by
the Czech local parish priest Waclaw Tomaszek. It is the mass grave of people who died during the Thirty Years War (1618
1648), three
Silesian Wars (17401763), and various ravaging diseases. 81 Together with J. Schmidt and grave digger J. Langer, father
who was inspired by the Capuchin cemetery while on a pilgrimage to Rome, collected the casualties bones, cleaned and put
them in the
chapel within 18 years (from 1776 to 1794).82 Walls of this small, baroque church are filled with three thousand skulls, and
there are also
bones of another 21 thousand people interred in the basement. The skulls of people who built the chapel, including father
Tomaszek, were
placed in the center of the building and on the altar in 1804. Inside are a crucifix and two carvings of angels, one with a Latin
that reads "Arise from the Dead" are among the bones.83

Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland.
Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. interior. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. Poland - Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. Poland -
Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - altar with Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - altar with
skulls. skulls.

Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w
Czermnej. Poland - Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - ceiling. Czermnej. interior.

Capela dos Ossos

The Capela dos Ossos in vora, Portugal, was built in the 16th century by a Franciscan monk who, in true memento mori
fashion, wanted
to prod his fellow brothers into contemplation and transmit the message of life being transitory. This is clearly shown in the
famous warning
at the entrance: We bones that here are, for yours await". 84.85

Capela dos ossos' entrance. Capela dos ossos' entrance warning ("We bones, lying here, for
yours we wait").

The chapel walls and pillars are decorated in carefully arranged bones and skulls held together by cement. The ceiling is made
of white
painted brick and is painted with death motifs. The number of skeletons of monks was calculated to be about 5000, coming
from the
cemeteries that were situated inside several dozen churches. Some of these skulls have been scribbled with graffiti. Two
corpses, one of which is a child, dangle from ropes. And at the roof of chapel, the phrase "Melior est die mortis die nativitatis
(Better is the
day of death than the day of birth)" (Ecclesiastes 7:1) is written. 84,85

Wall detail. Skeletons hanging from ropes. Chapel interior.

Inside the Capela dos Ossos a poem about the need to reflect on one's existence hangs in an old wooden frame on one of the
pillars. It is
attributed to Fr. Antnio da Asceno Teles, parish priest of the village of So Pedro (wherein the Church of Saint Francis with
its Capela
dos Ossos
Where are was
you erected) from a1845
going in such totraveler?
hurry 1848.84,85
Stop do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,

Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,

Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,

Stop for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will
The Paris Catacombs

My full history of the Paris Catacombs is available here.

Vanitas art is very closely related to memento mori. In particular, they share the common element of an emphasis on the
temporary nature
of life and worldly possessions, and the certainty of death. Vanitas art, however, refers to a specific period of still life painting
in Flanders
and the Netherlands
Common in theinclude,
vanitas symbols 16th andof 17th centuries,
course, and
the skull, asderives
well as it's name
rotten from
fruit, the Latin
bubbles, wordwatches,
smoke, for vanity. 86,87
hourglasses, and
musical instruments.86,87
The concept behind vanitas was captured succinctly when Andy Warhol said "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for
15 minutes."
Fame, it seems, is just vanity personified, and it too is only temporary. 88
Antonio de Pereda, 1634. Adriaen van Utrecht- Vanitas - Still Life
with Bouquet and Skull (1640's).

Anonymous from 17th century French


Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, Pieter

Claesz, 1628.
Vanitas by Edward Collier (1668).
After Pieter Claeszoon, Vanitas-Still-Life,
c. 1634.

Vanitas, by Pieter Claesz (1629).

Vanitas by Johann de Cordua (1664).

While the historical origins of the pirate flag, or Jolly Roger as it was called, are unknown, I would suggest it be classified as
another form
of vanitas art. The term 'Jolly Roger' goes back to at least 1724, when Charles Johnson's 'A General History of the Pyrates' was
published.89 In it, Johnson cites two pirates specifically for naming their flag's the Jolly Roger: Bartholomew Roberts in 1721 90
Francis Spriggs in 1723.91 Though not using the typical skull and crossbones design commonly associated with the Jolly Roger
came later), they are the earliest examples of such flags, and incorporated the skull/skeleton motif, the sword, and the
hourglass symbol.
These are also common symbols from vanitas art. Certainly it can be argued that the pirates embraced the vanitas concept in
their work,
living on the edge as they did. They were well aware that, if they didn't die in battle (which was certainly likely), they would be
hung if

Traditional Jolly Roger.

Roberts' first flag shows him and Death Walter Kennedy's Jolly Roger ensign
holding an hourglass.. (which was identical to the flag of Jean
Thomas Dulaien).

Emanuel Wynn's flag.

A pirate flag often called the "Jolly Roger." This flag is usually
attributed to Blackbeard. Similar to flags reportedly flown by
Edward Lowe and Francis Spriggs.


Tribal skull art is a mixture of headhunting trophies and ancestor memorials, depending on the
specific tribe.

The Dayak are the native people of Borneo, Indonesia. The term refers loosely to over 200 ethnic subgroups which inhabit
the island.
They are animist in their belief system, and were feared for their tradition of headhunting practices. 92 Despite mass
conversions to
Christianity and Islam,
The Dayak, Ifugao, andand anti-headhunting
Naga legislation,
human skulls are headhuntingthe trophies.
practice reemerged
The Asmat,inVanuatu,
the 1940's,
Palawanand 1990's.
human 93
skulls are
ancestor skulls. Ancestor skulls are collected and venerated to remember deceased family members. The Ifugao collect bones
of dead
relatives, wrap them in tribal textiles, and store them in the rafters under their huts. This is a very similar practice to the
There are skulls of
also many similarities to the Aztec practices. A skull could save a village from plague, produce rain, ward off evil
Jericho. 94
spirits, or
triple rice yields. Dayak people believed a man's spirit continued to inhabit his head after death. Surrounded by palm leaves,
heads were
offered food and cigarettes already lit for smoking so their spirits would forgive, forget, and feel welcome in their new home.
New heads
increased the prestige of the owner and impressed sweethearts; they were an initiation into manhood. 97

The Asmat are an Indonesian cannibalistic tribe on the island,Papua. Known to use human skulls under their heads for pillows,
they also
have been reported to eat human brains mixed with sago worms straight from halved human skulls. The Asmat live in
vegetation near the sea and rivers, on the south side of the western part of New Guinea. The Asmat, in addition to hunting for
skulls, also
The them. Ancestor
natural environment hasskulls
beenare stripped
a major of brains
factor andthe
affecting eyes. Nasal passages
Asmat,as areand
their culture closed
life are evil spirits
heavily from
dependent on
the rich or exit
the body.
natural Asmat decorated
resources skullsforests,
found in their are displayed in sacred
rivers, and places
seas. The inside
Asmat Asmat
mainly domiciles
subsist 96.
on starch from the sago palm (Metroxylon
sagu), fish,
forest game, and other items gathered from their forests and waters. Materials for canoes, dwellings, and woodcarvings are
also all
gathered locally, and thus their culture and biodiversity are intertwined. Due to the daily flooding which occurs in many parts of
their land,
Asmat dwellings have typically been built two or more meters above the ground, raised on wooden posts. In some inland
regions, the
Asmat have lived in tree houses, sometimes as high as 25 meters from the ground. The Asmat have traditionally placed great
on the veneration of ancestors, particularly those who were accomplished warriors. Asmat art, most noticeably elaborate,
stylized wood
carving, is designed to honour ancestors. Many Asmat artifacts have been collected by the world's museums, among the most
notable of
which are those found in the Michael C. Rockefeller Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the
in Amsterdam95,98.


The Tolai are the indigenous cannibal tribe of the Gazelle Peninsula and the Duke of York Islands of East New Britain in the
New Guinea
Islands region of Papua New Guinea. They are ethnically close kin to the peoples of adjacent New Ireland and are thought to
migrated to the Gazelle Peninsula in relatively recent times, displacing the Baining people who were driven westwards. 96

The Naga tribe of Nagaland attach animal horns to the skulls of their headhunted victims. 99,100 Europeans were struck by
the Naga
practice of headhunting. Ursula Graham Bower described the Naga hills as the "paradise of headhunters." 101 "Most villages
had a skull
house and each man in the village was expected to contribute to the collection. The taking of a head is symbolic of courage,
and men who
could not were dubbed as women or cows. There is nothing more glorious for a Naga than victory in battle by bringing home
the severed
head of an enemy."102 There was no indication of cannibalism among the Naga tribes. Headhunting has been eradicated since
conversion to Christianity and the spread of modern education in the region. 100


The Palawan tribe, from the Philippines, decorate the skulls of their deceased ancestors with

The Iatmul tribe, from Indonesia, hand paint and inlay shells into over-modeled skulls of deceased

The Chimbu of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea are best known for their elaborate skeletal body paint, which is
intended to
frighten their enemies.105

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo was the first artist of his era to show the sections of the skull. He first began studying the human skull in the late
1400's (around
1489) after getting access to human cadavers from the hospital of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. He used innovative
techniques, such
as injecting
Some molten
experts wax,
believe tothe
that locate andanatomical
oldest draw the cavities around
model skull, the brain
recently in the bones
discovered of the cranium
in Germany, may be106,107 .
the work of da


Paul Czanne(1862-1918)

Pyramid of Skulls is a c. 1901 oil painting by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Czanne. It depicts four human skulls stacked
in a
pyramidal configuration. Painted in a pale light against a dark background, Pyramid of Skulls is exceptional in the artist's
oeuvre, for "in no
other painting did Czanne place his objects so close to the viewer." 108 For art historian Franoise Cachin, "these bony visages
all but
assault the viewer, displaying an assertiveness very much at odds with the usual reserve of domestic still-life tableaux." 109
"Pyramid of Skulls" 1901. "Three Skulls" 1902-1906.
"Three Skulls on a Rug" 1904.

Working in isolation in the last decade of his life, Czanne frequently alluded to mortality in his letters: "For me, life has begun
to be
deathly monotonous"; "As for me, I'm old. I won't have time to express myself"; and "I might as well be dead." It is possible that
the death of
his mother on October 25, 1897she had been a protective and supportive influenceaccelerated his meditations on
mortality, a
subject which had obsessed the artist since the late 1870s, but did not find pictorial form for another twenty years. 110
Czanne's health
started to deteriorate at the same time. The dramatic resignation to death informs a number of still life paintings he made
between 1898 interest in the subject may have had roots in thoughts other than the contemplation of death. He could have been
drawn to the
and 1905 of skulls. These works, some painted in oils and some with watercolor, are more subtle in meaning yet also more
stark forms, just as he was to those of fruits and vases, and he supposedly exclaimed "How beautiful a skull is to
paint!" They
than the traditional approach to the theme of vanitas. 111
also share physical similarities with his self-portrayals: "the skulls confront the viewer straight-on in a manner reminiscent of
the artist's
portraits." In both sets of works the mass of the cranium is emphasized: in the self-portraits the lower half of his face is
obscured by his
beard, while the skulls lack lower jaws altogether. In both series attention is focused on the round pate and eye sockets. 112
There would
have been further reason for the subject to interest Czanne: skulls were prominent in the homes of Catholics, and Czanne
Joachim Gasquet, a friend of the artist, later recalled "on his last mornings he clarified this idea of death into a heap of bony
was a devout
brainpans to
Catholic knowledgeable in ancient Christian texts. Human skulls had also long been common accessories in artists' studios.
which the
Indeed, the eyeholes added a bluish notion. I can still hear him reciting to me, one evening along the Arc River, the quatrain by
For in thisoflethargic
contents Czanne'sworld
studio were known to include "three skulls, (and) an ivory Christ on an ebony cross" near one another on
the prey to old remorse
The only laughter
mantelpiece. 111
to still make sense
Is that of death's heads.

Pyramid of Skulls was painted at Czanne's studio in Aix, where he worked prior to his move into the new Les Lauves studio in
September 1902. A visitor to the studio in July 1902 wrote: "In his bedroom, on a narrow table in the middle, I noticed three
human skulls
facing one another, three beautiful polished ivories. He spoke of a very good painted study that was somewhere in the attic. I
wanted to
A watercolor
see study, Three
it." But Czanne couldSkulls, atthe
not find thekey
Art to
Institute of Chicago,
the garret, is similar
and blamed in composition,
his maid though relatively more graceful in
for its misplacement.
The skull studies would serve as inspiration to 20th-century artists like Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. Today the skulls
remain in Czanne's studio outside of Aix-en-Provence.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter who is perhaps best known for his 1907 painting 'The Kiss.' Being a symbolist it is not
to find the skull present in some of his work, such as 'Death and Life ' in 1908 and 'Hope, II' 1907-1908.
'Death and Life ' (1908).

'Hope, II' (1907-1908).

Jos Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913)

Jos Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican printmaker and engraver whose work was known for it's political and satirical nature.
best known works are his calaveras, which often assume various costumes, such as the Calavera de la Catrina, which was
meant to
satirize the life of the upper classes. Most of his imagery was meant to make a religious or satirical point. Since his death,
however, his
images have become associated with the Mexican holiday Da de los Muertos, the "Day of the Dead". 114
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

In 1885 or 1886 Van Gogh painted 'Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette'. The painting is believed to have been a
commentary on
conservative academic practices of the time. It may have also influenced a well known painting by M.C. Escher done in 1917.
were two other paintings of skulls that followed, in 1887 and 1888. Those were the only known paintings he ever did with the
human skull
as a motif (there was a sketch, however).115

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1885-1886).

Smoking Warning, M.C. Escher, 1917.

Skull (1887-1888).
Skull (1887-1888).

Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Diego Rivera was a prominent Mexican painter and the husband of Frida Kahlo. His large wall works in fresco helped establish
Mexican Mural Movement in Mexican art. Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera painted murals among others in Mexico City,
Cuernavaca, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City. 116 In what is perhaps his most well-known mural, Dream of a Sunday
in the Alameda Central, he portrays his wife, Frida Kahlo, with la Calavera, in tribute to Jos Guadalupe Posada. 117

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Skulls, traditional symbols of the memento mori in Western art history, fascinated Picasso throughout his life. Throughout World
War II in
occupied Paris, Picasso produced many skulls and still lifes that captured the tense and uncertain mood of the city. While they
represent allegories of human mortality in art, the immediacy of Picassos paintings and sculptures transform his skulls into
emblems of human vulnerability, death, and the senseless destruction of war. Picasso created 'Skull' in 1943 during the Nazi
of Paris,
Along which
with he may
Czanne, have modeled
Picasso must have offdrawn
of skulls kept in his
inspiration studio
from as many
Antonio artists did,
de Peredas such(1660)
Vanitas as Paulpaintings,
Czanne who stored
in which the
several on
artist has his
mantelpiece. Czanne
rendered the bone created
structure of several
carefullypaintings of skulls not
crafted craniums in aonly becausemanner.
meticulous of his interest in the are
These skulls contemplation of death, of
but sober reminders but
also due
the bodysto his
demise andwith their shapes
universal symbolsand forms.
of the 118
expiration of mans existence and the transience of life, which Picasso has rendered
in his own
inimitable fashion.118
"Bull Skull and Fruit Pitcher" 1939. "Leeks, Fish Head, Skull and Pitcher"
"Skulls and Leeks" 1945

"Black Jug and Skull" 1946

"Skull, Sea Urchins, and Lamp on a Table"

"Skull" 1943

Salvador Dali(1904-1989)

The human skull made an appearance in many of Dali's paintings. In fact, the spectre of death appeared to be one of
the artist's
obsessions. Consider the following excerpt from the Mike Wallace interview with Dali in 1958. 119
WALLACE: You write in your biography that death is beautiful. What's beautiful about death? Why is death
DALI: This is one feeling everything is erotic in my opinion.

WALLACE: Everything is what?

DALI: Erotic.

WALLACE: Erotic?

DALI: ...is ugly, in the middle of everything ugly so arrive the feeling of death, everything becomes noble and
WALLACE: Oh, in other words, life is erotic and therefore ugly. Death is not erotic but sublime, therefore
DALI: And beautiful. You know for instance, you, Micky Wallace, now is you a little good pay, a little handsome, but
essentially, you
becoming death, everybody tips his chapeau to you, you become fantastic man, everybody respects you a thousand times
much better. Is this by way of a suggestion?

DALI: Exactly. See you make one strip tease, you become ugly in one
WALLACE: Oh, I agree, I agree. Tell me this, what do you think will happen to you when you
DALI: myself not believe in my death.

WALLACE: You will not die?

DALI: No, no believe in general in death but in the death of Dali absolutely not. Believe in my death becoming very -- almost
WALLACE: You fear death?

DALI: Yes.

WALLACE: Death is beautiful but you fear death?

DALI: Exactly......because Dali is contradictory and paradoxical man.

Another recurring theme in Dali's painting was his dead brother. When he was five years old, the artist was taken to his
brother's grave
and told by his parents that he was his brother's reincarnation. 120 This thought seemed to haunt him throughout his life.
When his mother
died in 1921
In 1931, Dali (Dali wasperhaps
painted only 16his
at the
mosttime), he was
famous devastated,
work, sayingofher
'The Persistence death "was
Memory.' the greatest
The idea blow
of watches I had experienced
melting always in
my life."
struck me 121
being in defiance of time. In that sense, the image is yet another statement against death by the artist. 122
His wifes death seemed to be more than he could take. He retreated to the castle where her grave was located. He
attempted to
dehydrate himself to enter into a state of suspended animation. 123
The famous photograph of women posed in the shape of a skull by Dali has gone on to influence many other artists, and
has become
something of a cultural icon in it's own right. More info on that is available here

Atavism at Twilight, circa 1934 Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand

Piano, 1934

Ballerina in a Death's Head, 1939

Death Outside the Head/Paul Eluard, circa


For the Campaign Against Venereal

Disease, 1942

Exquisite Cadaver, 1935

The Horseman of Death, 1935
Skull with Its Lyric Appendage Leaning on
a Night Table which Should Have the Exact
Geological Destiny, 1933
Temperature of a Cardinal's Nest, 1934

Visage of War, 1940

The Skull of Zurbarn, 1956

Women Forming a Skull

Frida Kahlo(1907-1954)

While Frida Kahlo only incorporated the skull into a couple of her paintings (the majority were self-portraits), she has
come to be
associated with Day of the Dead imagery, and there is no shortage of art today that portrays her this way.
Frida Kahlo, Without Hope, 1945

Frida Kahlo, Girl With Death Mask She Image of Frida for Day of the Dead at the
Plays Alone, 1938 Museo Frida Kahlo

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

After he was shot and critically injured in 1968, Warhol became even more obsessed with the theme of death than he had
previously. The skull, a traditional symbol of mortality, is repeated six times, with the impenetrable darkness of the hollow eye
echoed in each image. The shadow cast by the skull resembles a babys profile, although whether this was intentional is
unknown as
Warhol did not take the photograph that the screenprint is based on. It seems unlikely, however, that this effective
combination of both life
and death would escape Warhols sharp gaze. In contrast to the sinister subject, the colours are vibrant. Perhaps Warhol is
attempting to
acknowledge that death is not something to be feared but instead, should be accepted as part of life. 124

ANDY WARHOL Philip's Skull (black),

Andy Warhol, Skull, 1976
1985 Synthetic polymer paint and
silkscreen ink on canvas 40 x 40 inches
(101.6 x 101.6 cm)

Andy Warhol Self Portrait with Skull, 1978

Andy Warhol's Philip's Skull paintings were completed in 1985, using silkscreens made from CAT-scan films of the skull of
Niarchos, who commissioned the artist to paint his portrait.Warhol's decision to use the CAT scans as a motif of portraiture is
rich in connotation. While Philip Niarchos had been a friend of the artist for many years, he also epitomized for Warhol the
upper crust of
the international jet set, the clientele he had sought since the 1970s for his financially lucrative society portraits. Therefore,
the CAT-scan
Of course,are
all not only
these references to
permutations of the
the tradition
image of of memento
the mori
skull figure painting, but
prominently alsothemes
in the to his own production
of death of the vanity
and disaster present in
portraits of high
Warhol's entire
body of In addition,
work the CAT-scan
beginning images
in the early refer
1960s, back tohis
including the large ensemble
portraits of movie of Skull
stars Paintings
and andviewed
celebrities his many
as self-portraits
commodities with
and as
skulls that
articles of
Warhol had painted The
mass consumption. nearly a decade
paintings before.125
of Philip's Skull are especially relevant to this theme of fame-as-death, one of the great
motifs in
Warhol's career.125
Like nearly all of Warhol's work, the Philip's Skull paintings have their root in photography, since most of his silkscreens were
made from
photographs, many of them borrowed from other sources. The same is true, of the medical CAT scans of Niarchos' cranium and
brain. But
from these dry, borrowed, or even morose sources, Warhol creates works of art full of resonance, from the connotations of the
dark side of
H. R. Giger (1940-2014)
human existence, to the wildly brilliant display of painting and color, celebrity and extravagance. 125

Swiss surrealist painter and sculptor H. R. Giger was born in 1940 in Chur. He is perhaps most widely known for his set design
work in
the Alien movie series, which won him an Oscar in 1980. He also did many album covers, published numerous books of his
(including the Necronomicon books), illustrated magazines, created his own Giger-esque bar, 128 and has a permanent museum
in his
honor. His passing in 2014 was a great loss. His painting 'Mirror Image' is easily near the top of my list of favorites, and is one
The influence of both Hindu and Buddhist art can be seen in his Li I and Li II paintings from 1974, in which the skull crown can
of many of
be spotted.
his works that prominently featured the human skull within it. 126,127
A possible nod to Aztec tzompantli's is also present in images such as his 'Landscape XIX' and 'Landscape XVII', where various
are embedded in the wall.

Li I, 1974 Landscape XIX

Mirror Image Aleister Crowley Li II, 1974

Alexander McQueen(1969-2010)
British fashion designer Alexander McQueen is credited with popularizing a fashion trend with stylized skulls which still
continues today.
Begining with scarves and handbags, and later jewelry, he used the skull extensively in his work. Today, largely thanks to
his influence,
the skull is found in every corner of the fashion world. 129,130

Damien Hirst

Controversial English artist Damien Hirst, a member of England's Young British Artists,131 has often made death a central
theme in his
art.133 Extravagance and wealth typically play a role as well, though one might be hard pressed to classify his work as vanitas.
became famous for a series of artworks in which dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) are preserved
sometimes having
beenis also well known
dissectedin for his piece 132
formaldehyde. 'For the Love of God', which consists of a platinum cast of an 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. Hirst
stated the idea for the work came from an Aztec turquoise skull at the British Museum. It can be classified as a memento mori
In hiswas
67 foot tall bronze and stainless steel sculpture entitled Verity, Hirst depicts a pregnant woman holding a sword aloft,
sold for 50
carrying themillion pounds.134
scales of justice, and standing atop a pile of law books. She is split down the middle, revealing her inner anatomy, including
unborn child.
At the time it was erected it was the tallest staue in England. 135
Cow by Damien Hirst

For the Love of God by Damien Hirst

Shark by Damien Hirst Verity by Damien Hirst

Mark Ryden

Artist Mark Ryden, dubbed "the god-father of pop surrealism" by Interview Magazine, 136 has incorporated the skull and
skeleton into many
of his compositions, sometimes prominently and sometimes in a more subtle fashion. In either case, it is clear that it has been
continues to be an influence on him, and both real skulls and models can be seen scattered throughout his studio. As noted by
"Much like the momento mori genre in which still lifes would be arranged in tableaus that would mimic the shape of a skull,
McCormick in his 2001 article "At Play in the Slaughterhouse of American Pop": 137
pastoral is indeed a nature morte infused with the bitter-sweet reminder of how precious, ephemeral and fleeting youth
and existence
In 'Theis.
really Pumpkin President',
This is obviously two evident
most childreninare seen
the playing
skulls, in a giant
skeletons horse skull.
and Christian In 'Theimagery..."
religious Parlor' a dapper top-hat wearing
skeleton stands
by with tarot card in hand, perhaps a nod to the well-known M.C. Escher print. In 'The Meat Train' a young boy holds a skull-
scepter in one hand, perhaps influenced by the Chitipati or Khatvanga.

The Pumpkin President by Mark Ryden

The Parlor by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden in his studio.

The Meat Train by Mark Ryden. The Magic Circus by Mark Ryden

Uncle Black by Mark Ryden

The Birth by Mark Ryden.

Slayer by Mark Ryden

Swap Meet Man by Mark Ryden

Corkey Ascending to the Heavens by Mark

Cone of Memory by Mark Ryden
Meat Magi by Mark Ryden.
A Dog Named Jesus by Mark Ryden.

Reader by Mark Ryden

40 by Mark Ryden

Laurie Lipton

Laurie Lipton is one of the most talented living artists producing skull-themed art today. Her work is produced in charcoal and
pencil on
enormous sheets of paper, capturing every tiny detail with painstaking draftsman-like precision. There is a definite Day of
the Dead
influence visible in her art, and a fascination with technology, machinery and death. Her La Catrina drawing is a definite tip
of the hat to
Jos Guadalupe Posada. Our full blog entry on Laurie can be found here.

The Last Embrace

Senorita Muerte

La Catrina.
The Umpteenth Anniversary.

Bone China

Jessica Joslin

Jessica Joslin has been creating beautiful skeletal animal assemblages since 1992, each one with it's own unique name. They
are part
museum specimen and part fairytale, reminiscent of Victorian wunderkammer, preserved specimens and the Mutter Museum,
as well as
Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Jan Svankmeijer. Our full blog entry on Jessica can be found here.



Kris Kuksi

Artist Kris Kuksi creates elaborate and intricately detailed assemblages utilizing toys and models, among many other parts.
The final
result might best be described as a modern take on religious/mythological themes, influenced by baroque and rococco style.
The skull
and skeleton play a prominent role in many of his installations. Director Guillermo del Toro owns some of his work. 138 Our full
blog entry
on Kris Kuksi can be found here.

This really only scratches the surface as far as a history of skull art is concerned. The Aztec influence has been perhaps the
greatest. You
can find more info on the symbolism of skull art here, and a full list of skull-related links here. Don't forget to check our blog as
well. It is
updated frequently with new skull art. I believe we are living at a point in time when skull-themed art is at it's most popular.

1. Human Evolution: A Neuropsychological Perspective. By John L. Bradshaw. Pg

2. Introduction to Prehistoric Art, 20,0008000 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum
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J.N. Tubb, Canaanites (London, The British Museum Press, 1998)
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63. Literally 'remember (that you have) to die', Oxford English Dictionary, Third Edition,
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65. See Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living and Holy Dying.

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