Welcome to another column in the section of my Gallery. We already are halfway through this academic year and since its start I have read quite some books and seen a lot of movies and artworks that I had not considered before. Lately I have been realising how often human skeletons and particularly human skulls are prevalent in many media forms and I have been wondering why. This is the reason that I have chosen to try and draw a skull myself, as part of the process of investigating their symbolism and use.
Think, for instance, of one of the best-known examples of skull symbolism in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the title character recognises his old friend Yorick in a skull that he finds at a graveyard. Directly after this moment in the play, one of Hamlet’s famous bitter soliloquies of rough ironic humour and despair is described, adding to the renown of the melancholic meaning of the skull in this particular example. Other well-known cases of skulls serving as an important symbol or motive are in Elizabethan England and the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead.
From these examples and perhaps some of your own that you can think of, the most common symbolic use of the skull is as a representation of mortality and death. This notion has been supported at least since the 16th century, during which Venetian painters entailed moral allegories in their works. “Memento mori” (“remember that you will die”) used to be a common theme and fitted the object of a skull perfectly as a reminder of the inevitability of death. Interestingly, according to a study by the University of Wales, the human brain has a specific region solely meant to recognise faces. In fact, this region is so attuned to finding faces that it is able to see them in a few dots and lines or punctuation marks, which is why our brains cannot separate the image of the skull from the familiar human face!
Many varieties to the classical image of a skull have been created throughout the years, accompanied by changing connotations to the object. Meanings of the running out of time, loyalty and sacrifice are only some of them. Another familiar image of the human skull that we still come across today is a skull with serpents crawling through its eyes, sometimes containing implications for trees in both the Greek Garden of the Hesperides and the Garden of Eden. A more recent example stems from the Harry Potter series. Furthermore, skulls – in art, but in media as well – might sometimes be seen crowned by typically a chaplet of dried roses, sending more of a “Carpe Diem” (“seize the day”) kind of message.
However, to make things a bit more interesting and alive and a little less deceased for my own project, I decided to create a paradox between Memento Mori and Carpe Diem within one drawing by opening the top of the skull to reveal succulents growing out of it. As you can see in the image, I drew it differently compared to my usual style by almost solely using dots. This emphasises the gloomy feeling that the skull causes at first but strengthens the sense that something enchanting is going on as the opposites of life and death are confronted with one another. With each ending comes a new beginning, right?