The following article was published in N-SPHERE December 2010 issue.


Nous le voyons apparaître au Moyen Age, se comportant et s’étalant avec toute la maladresse cynique et toute la superbe de l’idée sans art. Mais depuis lors jusqu’au XVIIIe siècle, climat historique de l’amour et des roses, nous voyons le squelette fleurir avec bonheur dans tous les sujets où il lui est permis de s’introduire. La sculpture comprit bien vite tout ce qu’il y a des beauté mystérieuse et abstraite dans cette maigre carcasse, à qui le chair sert d’habit, et qui est comme le plan du poème humain. (Ch. Baudelaire, Salon de 1859, VIII, Sculpture)


Troublesome times logically cause introspection and reevaluation. There are some remarcable cases when a discourse centered on the finality of humankind develops in historically critical conditions, when the impulse to judge one’s own epoch as decadent amplifies and time is to be perceived dramatically. Throughout the two millenia of christianity, western Europe has often been tempted to perceive political and social catastrophs as a manifestation of the imminent Apocalypse.

Apart from the idea of temporal ciclity inspired by the constant annual regeneration of nature, the judeo–christian vision of a linear time, which would perhaps end with the Second Coming/Parousia, helped to reintroduce in Renaissance times an adjusted version of the old Saturn/Chronos of antiquity. He illustrated the philosophical concept of Time with all its undertones: time’s irreversible flow, life’s briefness, the dissolution of all possible illusion when facing the Truth and so on, thus receiving an ambivalent nature, positive/creative and negative/destructive. Although, for instance, Marsilio Ficino, considering himself a saturniano, attempted to somewhat rehabilitate the old god by proposing a general typology of those “born under saturn”, governed by melancholia and strokes of genius/madness, the negative aspects (Saturn’s canibalism, his gruesomeness) brought Saturn closer to the image of Death. The old god borrowed Death his hourglass and eventually his wings, as seen in Bernini’s Death at Pope Alexander VII’s Tomb in Vatican’s San Pietro; or allowed it to appear in the decoration of timepieces, reiterating a memento mori.

Saturn’s old appearance mirrored the way humankind perceived itself: old, almost reaching the end of time, when all essential in history had passed by. Although this might be explained sociologically and historically on a larger scale, I will try to address the collective imaginary of the elites and its influences. Death, however, insidiously invaded the social imaginary through alternative routes: expressions in lyrical, sacred or secular poetry; or through the apparition of phantasmic productions dealing with Death, as forms of “modern” theatre which distanced itself from the medieval mystery plays (the Elizabethan dramas as large processions of murder and blood). The new sensibility was heavily influenced by iconographical trends: see, for instance, Emile Mâle’s stance that the art of the Counter–Reformation was centered around the image of the martyr, and subsequently death. It is common knowledge that a world of violence and instability inspired Caravaggio and the European caravaggisti; and that the most interiorised meditations of still–life painters placed the skull in the center of their Vanitas paintings.

Some historians have noted that the lyrical, theatrical, musical or visual productions shared the same traits (hence the artificial denomination: “baroque”): a mannerist artificiality, the search of new forms, exaggeration or hyperbolizing, a constant fear or epigone complex followed by a collective non possumus, perhaps most ably illustrated in La Bruyère’s Caractères: Tout est dit, et l’on vient trop lard depuis plus de sept mille ans qu’ ’il y a des hommes et qui pensent.

Two of the most poignant apparitions of Death happen, unincidentally, within the “anatomical” studies and funerary art, both covering christian, moral undertones. In the case of anatomical studies, if Death is already blooming (avec bonheur – as Baudelaire put it), skulls and bones somehow expose the internal limits of “scientific” exploration, calling for a reapproach through allegory, under the effect of the most realistic depictions.

As for the other medium which allowed the obsessive multiplication of skulls or skeletons in the most macabre depictions, funerary art probably influenced the most the later perceptions (18th – early 20th century) of “baroque” as something of a rather mauvais goût. I would only like to remind the close bond between the baroque taste and rhetoric. There is something that only through the theme of Death may be explored. When realising the distinction between an emotional discourse or a discourse dominated by reason, the baroque taste “chose” the emotional one. A conduct centered around the idea of passion gains validity through the appeal to sensibility and affectivity. But this also permits us to ask, in the manner of Johan Huizinga: Est–elle vraiment pieuse la pensée qui s’attarde si fort au coté terrestre de la mort? (Le Déclin du Moyen–Age).

by Roxana Vasile

artwork by Diana Daia

Full article here.