As we explored in our podcast episodes "The Problem of Immortality" and "Into the Graveyard," humans are haunted by their own mortality. Fear of death and the desire to transcend its clutch permeates our culture.
And do you see what I did? Even now, almost without realizing it, I have personified death as a force, as an entity and most importantly as an outside agent acting against our physical bodies rather than a natural biological process.
Because if death is an enemy, then we can fight it. We can run from it. Maybe one day we'll even defeat it. For now, however, we can only personify the inevitable and drape its ghastly form in the dark robes of our imagination.
Join me as I journey through 40 images of the Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death and other artistic visions of impermanence incarnate.
Here we see the Buddhist Wheel of Samsara. The details of the wheel (which you'll find here) illustrate the pleasures, torments, hungers and passions that rule our lives and shackle us to the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
What monster is this which holds the entire wheel in its claws? Why that is Yama, the cosmic of beast of impermanence forever feasting on everything we attempt to keep for ourselves.
Death personifications are ancient, you see, and you'll find them throughout the world. To understand the forces that rule our lives, we pour them into animal and human forms.
What do we have here? Why it's Death set in stone at Notre-Dame du Bulat-Pestivien in Brittany, France. This reaper has weathered somewhat over the centuries, for even stone cannot stand the test of time. Sure, it's sturdier than human flesh and lasts long after we've rotted in the grave -- that's why we turn to it for monuments and grave markers. Death may claim us, but surely this memorial will last forever.
But Death always has the last laugh.
Behold "Like sheep they are laid in the grave" by French painter J. James Tissot (1836- 1902), illustrating the following passage from the Biblical Book of Psalm:
"Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling."
The passage concerns the ultimate futility of wealth, for all the gold in the world still cannot keep the reaper at bay.
Arnold Böcklin's "Self-portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle" stands as one of my all-time favorite contemplations on mortality. Here is the mortal artist attempting to create something that lasts beyond his meager allotment of years.
To paraphrase T.S. Ellitot, Böcklin "was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin." As detailed on Art Spotlight, he became particularly obsessed by death following the loss of his infant daughter Maria, influencing this painting as well as his most famous work, "Isle of the Dead."
Here we see a detail from the 1562 oil painting "The Triumph of Death" by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The work, while outstanding, is but one entry in a long tradition of dance macabre. Not only is death personified, but the dead rise up to harvest the living -- as if to illustrate the enormous population of the dead that came before us -- a population we are all destined to join. The work reminds us that all Earthly endeavors are futile and that mortality cuts every level of society.
Here we see Death the Leech. It's one of 13 woodcuts from "The Doings of Death" by Scottish artist William Strang (1859- 1921). We see Death attend to a dying woman as if her physician. Is he not the ultimate physician? His house calls terminate all illness and suffering. His cure is absolute.
Here's another woodcut from William Strang's "The Doings of Death." It presents death as a suitor, indeed the most patient suitor of all. He desires our body and soul and will wait decades to claim his love. Oh sure, enjoy your youthful flings for the time being. He doesn't care. In the end, you'll only have eyes for him.
We often deploy the Grim Reaper as a cautionary figure. In this grim 1954 image, we see a costumed Death at the site of a recent fatal car wreck to remind Lackland Air Force Base personnel to drive with caution over Labor Day weekend.
Leave it to 19th century woodcut master Gustave Doré to craft such an elegant vision of Death. See this spectral horseman of the apocalypse ride down to harvest the souls of the dying. Curiously, his face is grim and stoic but un-decayed.
Oh death, you scoundrel!
Here we see "The Honeymoon," plate 13 from "The English Dance of Death" by British artist Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827). The original caption states "When the old fool has drank his wine and gone to rest, I will be thine." You can explore other images from this series right here, all featuring some rather darkly humorous adventures for the bony personification of mortality.
Here we see a colored woodcut showing the dangers of lust and illicit love, after a symbolic woodcut by 16th-century artist Peter Flotner. We see alcohol assisting seduction in the center, while Death brandishes an hourglass on the left.
I'm particularly fond of Death's depiction in this painting as it maximizes the sense of physical corruption and disease -- a particularly fitting personification given the ravages of sexually-transmitted syphilis at the time. In fact, that's why we chose it as cover art for our podcast episode "Syphilis Through the Ages."
Here we see a detail of a fourteenth-century Sienese fresco at Convento di San Benedetto, also known as Sacro Speco.
Here's another vision of Death the horseman, this one by Italian artist Stefano della Bella (1610-1664). It's titled "Death on the Battlefield," for that's certainly one of his favorite stomping grounds.
Here we see "Horsemen of Apocalypse" by Spanish painter Ulpian Checa Sanz (1860-1916). It's such a powerful image as the Reaper takes the form of a old man, his countenance lost to insane rage.
Here's a classic depiction of the reaper from Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Titled "Tod und Leben" ("Death and Life"), it displays a grinning Death as it gazes at life itself as a conglomerate of lifespans spread out across generations. In this, the work serves as a counter argument to the Danse Macabre tradition. Sure, Death is inexorable and claims every individual, but it is also increasingly powerless against larger views of life: the family, the bloodline, the race and the species.
This Azulejo (a form of Portuguese or Spanish painted, tin-glazed, ceramic tilework) in Sao Francisco's church cloister illustrates that "death awaits all equally." Indeed, we see the Reaper as he invades a fortress of wealth and power in order to claim the life of a not-so-all-powerful king.
Here we see "Death and a Young Woman" by Hans Baldung Grien (1484 - 1545). Withered in face and genitals (another syphilis reference, perhaps?), the reaper comes with hour glass in hand to claim this otherwise young and vital creature. No one is out of his league.
Here we see "Death and the Woodcutter," an illustration for the fable of Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) by painter Leon Augustin Lhermitte (1844-1925). The image refers not merely to the woodcutter's mortality, but to the passing of a way of life in French culture.
Behold "The Race Track" by Albert Pickham Ryder (1847 - 1917), which displays life as a race track and its master rider as Death. Note the serpent as well, a potent symbol of temptation. In the great race of life, there's one rider you can always bet on.
Here we see another Jewish incarnation of Death in an illustration by Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874-1925) from Songs of the Ghetto, a 1903 illustrated volume of Yiddish poems by Morris Rosenfeld translated into modern German. The illustrations depict the life of a tailor and his Zionist dreams. Lilien's work, in a strong Art Nouveau style was highly influential in Palestine.
Yes, Death sells! So it's no surprise that we see him here, stalking through suburban American in 1940s advertising art.
Here we see "The Bishop and Death," from "The English Dance of Death" by British artist Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827). The original caption states " "Though I may yield my forfeit breath, the word of Life defies thee, Death." In other words, the promise of Christian resurrection trumps the victory of death -- a common theme in Western traditions.
You can explore other images from this series, all featuring some rather darkly humorous adventures for the bony personification of mortality.
Here we see "The Three Ages of Man and Death" by Hans Baldung (1484 - 1545) -- or at least a portion of it. The image is rather vertical, so you'll have to view it in its entirety right here.
Here we see a detail from "Death and the Miser" by the legendary Hieronymus Bosch (1450 - 1516). It's another memento mori and, in keeping with Bosch's other works, is filled with symbolism. I'll refer you to the National Gallery of Arts for the full image, but this detail captures two key items.
First of all, Death appears in a harlot's robes and aims an arrow at the miser's groin, indicating the horrors of venereal disease. Secondly, we see that, in death, he relinquishes his worldly riches to a demon.
We personify death as an enemy to be battled and even defeated. While spiritual traditions tend to throw Jesus or liberation at this fight, science makes a champion of the doctor. So here we see a 19th century drawing of a physician holding Death at bay.
Death frequently pops up in political cartoons. In this 19th century engraving we see an allegory of Death visiting Napoleon I and giving him a skull instead of the earth to play with. Cheer up, Napoleon!
More politics, this time from World War I! Here we see an allegory of death presenting German Emperor William II (1859-1941) with bodies of dead soldiers, on his birthday. This image saw print on the front page of French newspaper Le Petit Journal in 1915.
Again from the pages of Le Petit Journal, this time we see crimson Death as an allegory for a 1911 epidemic of pneumonic plague in Manchuria.
Of course Death is not always a wretched enemy. Sometimes we see Death as a dark necessity of a loving God. Here we see a winged, feminine Angel of Death in the 1851 painting by Horace Vernet.
Here's another feminine Angel of Death, this time as featured in the 1895 painting "La mort du fossoyeur" (The Death of the Gravedigger) by Carlos Schwabe. We see the soul of an aged gravedigger claimed by a beautiful, virginal Death against the backdrop of a pristine, chilling winter landscape. His life of toil is at an end.
Now we enter into the age of film, TV and modern comic books. We won't be listing them all, but there's no avoiding Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (1957). Swedish actor Bengt Ekerot played death as white-faced man in a black cloak, setting an iconic standard for decades to follow.
American actor William Sadler has played his own comedic version of Death in two separate television shows and one feature film. While most will remember his turn as the Reaper from 1991's "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey," he also played the character alongside the Crypt Keeper in a 1994 episode of "Tales From the Crypt" and in an earlier 1985 sketch on the television show "Assaulted Nuts."
When it comes to comedic visions of Death, we have to mention 1983's "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life," in which the Grim Reaper attends a dinner party at an isolated country house -- with lethal results of course. Python member Terry Gilliam would go on to create another stunning cinematic Death in his 1988 film "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."
Jim Henson's "The Storyteller" series featured an episode titled "The Soldier and Death," based on a Russian folktale. The episode presented death as a small, inhuman creature with large, emotive eyes. When the soldier catches Death in a magical sack, he is forced to come to terms with the necessity of mortality -- and is himself cursed with immortality.
Here we see Death from "Dellamorte Dellamore," (AKA "Cemetery Man"), a 1994 comedy horror film directed by Michele Soavi.
The Ghost of Christmas Future often takes the form of a Deathly reaper in adaptations of "A Christmas Carol." Here we see one of the finer examples from "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992).
Death pops up quite a bit in the world of comics, often in female form. Oh, sometimes she's a big-breasted woman in black underwear, other times a big-breasted woman in a clingy black robe -- but the far more interesting (and less embarrassing) incarnation is the version created in the pages of "The Sandman" by Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg. This feminine death manifests as a perky, upbeat goth girl with a penchant for acceptable street clothes.
Death is something of a fan favorite in the world of Terry Pratchett's "Disc World" novels, factoring into their complex comedic plots as something of a straight man. He also made it to the big screen in two Sky1 adaptions, "The Hogfather" and "The Color of Magic," voiced by the late Ian Richardson and Christopher Lee.
This fabulously inhuman vision of the Angel of Death comes to us from artist Wayne Barlowe and featured prominently in Guillermo del Toro's 2008 film "Hellboy II: The Golden Army." Barlowe has made a career out of alien and infernal anatomies, so it's little wonder that his take on mortality incarnate would resonate with such otherworldly power.
Finally, here's a taste of Death from graffiti artist Banksy. Personify mortality however you like, but he/she/it will find you in the end. Try to wear a smile or two before that happens.