Saturday, April 9, 2011

The osseous canvas

The human skeleton offers a powerful base for an artist to work upon.  After one's flesh has long decayed, in most environmental conditions the bones are all that remains.  Bones are often the most permanent physical memoir of one's existence.  The skull, as the seat of one's brain and therefore consciousness, conjures especially powerful imagery.  To use one's bones in art simultaneously makes a statement about the owner's life and serves as a memento mori for the viewer.

Plastered Human Skull from Jericho, c. 7000-6000 BC. Source

The use of human bones in art is an ancient practice.  The inhabitants of the Neolithic Levant developed complex burial rituals and ideas about death.  The deceased would often be buried directly under the foundations of their relatives' homes.  Sometimes, they would be exhumed several years later and the skulls removed.  The skull would be plastered, molded, and painted to resemble the departed individual.  Skulls of one's ancestors were collected and used to decorate one's dwelling, offering a physical link to the past that may have been used to solidify one's genealogical right to their material possessions.

 Painted lime plaster mask and skull, c. 100-170 AD.  Source

The skull cults of the Ancient Near East created a sophisticated and widespread artistic tradition, but they were not at all unique in their practices.  The Ancient Romans too held the skull in an esteemed position among one's bodily remains.  This death mask from the 2nd century AD was created to be displayed on top of the owner's skull.  This was very much like the practices of the Neolithic Levant, however the Roman artist appears to have been more virtuous in the realistic reconstruction of the details of the deceased's face.

 A 16th century illustration of an Aztec tzompantli, from the Durán Codex. Source

Aztec tzompantli from the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan.  Source

The Ancient Mesoamerican tzompantli, served the dual purpose of a memento mori for the members of the polity as well as for its enemies.  These skull racks were constructed around megalithic temples with the remains of war captives and other sacrificial victims.  The tzompantli served as a physical representation of the religious power of a deity and the military might of the polity's Lord.  Ortíz de Montellano (1983) estimated that there were over 60,000 skulls on the Hueyi Tzompantli of Tenochtitlan, a truly terrifying monument to the power of the Aztec empire.

An ofrenda, Ciudad Universitaria, UNAM, Mexico. Source

The mortuary traditions of the Ancient Mesoamerican civilizations have survived to the modern day.  In Mexico, the festival that would become Mexico's Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, was celebrated by the Aztecs on the ninth month of their solar year.  This was, and still is, a festival to remember one's ancestors and is a joyous, rather than remorseful celebration.  The art surrounding the modern festival has many examples of skeletal imagery, such as this ofrenda, an offering of assorted goods placed around an ancestors grave during the festival.  

 Without Hope (1945) by Frida Kahlo. 

The skeletal motif is found throughout contemporary Mesoamerican artwork.  However, unlike the empires that once inhabited the region, modern artists shy from using real skulls as part of their work.  This is most likely a result of the introduction of the hegemony of Judeo-Christian values.  Also, skulls are probably a rarer possession in a time without sacrificial cults.  You must wonder though, how powerful a mere image of a skull can be compared to art that is produced on actual skulls.  Today, our mortuary prescriptions do not allow the disturbance of a body at rest, and it seems that the use of the human skeleton as a canvas is largely a dead art form.  However, as shown by a post made a few weeks ago on an exhibit by Damien Hirst, the osseous canvas is still very much alive. 


  1. Have you ever been to the catacombs of Paris? The underground passages are lined with walls of bones and skulls. Though the catacombs were originally designed in response to overpopulation and mass-inhumation was apparently transformed into a sort of work of art by many French Artists of the time who used to throw informal get-togethers in the catacombs at midnight (or at least this is what I was told during my visit). This artful and macabre presentation of bones is the appeal of the catacombs.

  2. I have heard of it, sadly I've never been to France though. I didn't think to talk about it in this post, but from the pictures I've seen it's an incredible installation. There are several other structures built largely from bones, such as the Skull Chapel in Czermna (

    Here's some modern skull art for dicussion that I also didn't think of to include in my original post. Twice (at least) in the past decade, teenagers have dug up corpses to make from the skull waterpipes for smoking Cannabis. These "head pieces" probably push the skull art line a little too far.


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