From Fra Angelico and Hans Holbein to Andy Warhol and Jean-Michael Basquiat, the skull has always been the ultimate signifier of mortality – whether it is rendered in the most reverent brushstrokes or splattered on a canvas with anarchic glee. Though each artist espouses his own distinctive thesis on the subject, they all reinforce the same inescapable truth: there is always a skull beneath the skin and, sooner or later, it will be revealed.
It is beautiful too. Polished, immaculate and defined by its contrast of gleaming ivory and shadowy niches, the skull is a piece of morbidly perfect engineering that continues to evoke both terror and awe. And though it has saturated every fibre of our visual culture, it retains the power to shock. It is a potent symbol of the danger of imminent demise if we ignore the skull and crossbones on the phial of poisonous chemicals, or the Jolly Roger hoist atop the pirate ship’s mast.
In the seventeenth century, the skull took centre stage in Dutch still life painting, as successive masters grappled with the meaning of life. In Still Life with Bouquet and Skull, 1642, Adriaen van Utrecht contrasted a shining skull with flowers in full bloom, inviting vitality and death to sit side by side on his canvas.
Salvador Dali’s infamous In Voluptas Mors (Voluptuous Death), 1951, goes further, the artist arranging the inviting bodies of naked women into the shape of a skull, sublimating the root of male sexual desire into the ultimate symbol of death. As in all human life, the fecund and the fetid exist side by side.
This spirit of momento mori (Latin for ‘remember [that you have] to die’), is fundamental to the iconography of the skull, making it a shorthand – and focal point - for our own obsession with mortality. Like Hamlet, we hold up Yorick’s skull, and try to make sense of our pointless, transient lives.
It is the ultimate equaliser; permanently en courant, whether sashaying the catwalk on Alexander McQueen’s scarfs, bags and rings, or in the most bejewelled and bewitching of all its forms - Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted For the Love of God, 2007. Perhaps these popular cultural references are the most resonant of all – as Dia de Muertos’ dissolving sugar skull reminds us, nothing can perpetuate our existence forever.
In essence, then, the skull is the ultimate tabula rasa, reminding us with its relentless anonymity, ambiguity and androgyny that in death we are all equal. Our differences – in colour, creed, social status or wealth – will dissolve like the flesh from our bones, and kings, lawyers and servants will all be reduced to the same essential structure at the last.
Evoking admiration, awe and morbid fascination, the skull endures as a macabre, unifying symbol of the human condition, inviting interpretation at every turn whilst denying that any reading can ever be definitive. It is provocative. Inevitable. A relic of our past and an omen of our unavoidable future.