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This month's Clip & Save Art Print features one of art history's oldest recurring symbols: the human skull. As witches, goblins, bats, ghouls and ghosts loom large in the minds and imaginations of students during the month of October, the image of a human skull excavated from a long-extinct city is the perfect vehicle to spark their interest in the topic of symbols in art.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted on the afternoon of August 24, 79 A.D., the thriving Roman city of Pompeii was wiped from existence in a matter of hours. Hundreds of artifacts and works of art vanished under 25 feet of volcanic ash and stone for nearly 1,700 years, until excavators discovered a plaque with a telling inscription: the word "Pompeii."

What archeologists have uncovered in subsequent years is nothing short of astonishing: a city frozen in time that offers a window into the lives of ancient Romans. Many of the findings are of particular interest to art historians, such as frescoed wall paintings, bronze and marble sculptures, decorative arts, jewelry and mosaics. Many works in mosaic have been found intact, including the Skull Emblema in this month's featured art print.

A common feature of Pompeiian mosaics is an emphasis on naturalism and drama. One example of a floor mosaic depicts a lunging, barking dog with the Latin phrase, "Beware of Dog." Another example, a copy from a Greek composition, depicts three parrots perched on a birdbath. Mythological and historical subject matter, portraiture and imagery of the natural world were commonly depicted in Roman mosaic art. Mosaic artists would often employ tromp l'oleil, or the illusion of three-dimensions, to provide an added degree of visual pleasure and interest. A good selection of Pompeiian mosaics can be viewed at photo_album.htm.

The mosaics uncovered in Pompeii were made by Greek craftsmen and many of the scenes are copies of Greek imagery. Not all Pompeiians could afford to commission a work in mosaic and it was mainly in the homes of the wealthy or powerful that mosaics have been found. Mosaics were used to decorate walls and tabletops and as decorative flooring.

The Skull Emblema, which originated in the Hellenistic period, was either used as a tabletop or as flooring in a triclinium, or Roman dining room. The use of a human skull as decoration in a contemporary dining room might seem macabre, but would not be shocking or bizarre to ancient Roman eyes.

To ancient Romans, skull imagery had two important and related philosophical meanings. As an Epicurean symbol, the skull reminded diners of the importance of life's sensual pleasures and thus helped them to enjoy their meals to the utmost. Secondly, the skull, as a symbol of death, called to mind the fleeting nature of human life and thus reinforced the idea of carpe diem: pluck the day and live life to its fullest, for death is inevitable.

The Pompeiian Skull Emblema can also be considered part of the genre known as memento mori. In Latin, "memento mori" translates to "Remember that you are mortal." By viewing the image of a skull, the Roman observer would have been reminded of his own short-lived humanity.

Memento-mori themes were common in Christian art as well, although the meaning was quite different from the ancient Romans'. Whereas the Roman message was to "seize the day," the Christian message served to remind the viewer of eternal life in heaven (for the faithful) or hell (for the sinner).

Each element in the Skull Emblema holds symbolic significance and its meaning would have been clearly understood by the educated Roman who commissioned the work for his home. As mentioned above, the skull is one of the most common symbolic images of death. Here, death occupies most of the space, surrounded by images that reinforce the theme.

The skull dangles from a plumb-line, which in turn hangs from a carpenter's or mason's level. On the left side of the skull, a bolt of lush purple fabric and a scepter intertwine two symbols of wealth and power. On the opposite side, a coarse, plain fabric, a stick and a beggar's sack symbolize poverty and the lower classes. As the two sides are in perfect balance, the symbolic message is clear: death is the "great leveler" of mankind.

The remaining elements in the composition, a butterfly and a wheel, symbolize the transient and uncertain nature of life. The butterfly has long been used in art as a symbol of change and transformation. In ancient Greek, the word "psyche" means both butterfly and soul. In this mosaic, the symbol of death rests upon the symbol of the human soul. Below the butterfly, a six-spoke wheel supports all the elements of the composition. The wheel may have dual meaning here: the wheel as a symbol of the world and the wheel as a symbol of the wheel of fortune.

In total, this work of art can be read as such: all human existence, in body and soul, is left to randomness and chance. In life, some are winners (the rich and powerful), some are losers (the poor and powerless), yet all are mortal. In the end, death will always even the score.

The skull as a symbol of death and the fleeting nature of human life endured well beyond the first century A.D. The genre known as vanitas was popular during the 17th century and practiced by painters in Flanders and the Netherlands. Meaning "vanity" in Latin, vanitas paintings served as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life and the certainty of death. Common symbols appear in vanitas paintings of the era, such as the human skull (death), rotting fruit (death and decay) and soap bubbles (the brevity of life). Still-life paintings were commonly used as vehicles to express the themes of this genre. For examples of vanitas paintings, visit the National Gallery, London's Web site, and do a search for "vanitas."

To this day, contemporary artists continue the vanitas tradition. In the spring of 2000, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presented Vanitas: Meditations of Life and Death in Contemporary Art. To see examples from this exhibit, go to And the image of the featured artwork is still being used today, in animated form, as part of the main title of the HBO drama series, Rome.
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Author:Carroll, Colleen
Publication:Arts & Activities
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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