Skulls are among the most powerful symbols in art. A single object, no matter how represented, can tell a whole story. When you see a skull, what do you think of? For most of us, the skull immediately evokes the idea of death. They remind us of our mortality and the presence of danger. The Jolly Roger.
Although skulls clearly connote death, they also have a thousand other meanings and symbolic uses in the world of art. They can represent change and transformation. Or power and strength. Even wealth and protection. We humans give meaning to objects to aid us in understanding the world. We create a shorthand in our minds to make sense of what lies around us.
But this shorthand isn’t the same the world over. Sometimes, they don’t even work between individuals. We understand symbols through our own individual experience, lessons, and viewpoints. Here are a few of the ways the skull is used in other cultures.
The Jolly Roger, which was the most well-known pirate flag of the early 1700s, has endured to this day as the emblem of the wild buccaneers that roamed the Spanish Main, sinking ships, and burying treasure. So well establish are the skull and cross bones that we use them today to mark poisons and dangerous chemicals that should be kept out of reach of children.
Skull rings and skull jewelry are a ubiquitous artform for bikers. Biker gangs have symbolized rebellion and freedom right from the start in the 1930s. They love the skull, which advertises the danger and aggression bikers are famous for. You should visit Bikerringshop if you’re a real fan of skull jewelry.
Commemoration of the Dead
Mexicans decorate skullsin bright colors and patterns to celebrate the dead. The annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a family dress up party in honor ofthe dearly departed. Sugar skulls, as they are called, are the symbols of this yearly celebration.They were originally confected from sugar and adorned with colorful feathers, beads, and frosting. Today, they come in a variety of materials, but they all retain the basic design, with flowers, bright colors, and decoration around the eyes and mouths.
In many traditions, death is not the end. It is just the next step in life, which has many more paths to take. This is also a part of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, which is a happy festival celebrating life and not mourning death. Here, death marks a turning point in a person’s life. This is also what the skull represents in the Tarot card.
In essence, the skull represents the human condition with all its attributes and faults. Charles Allan Gilbert used this symbol in his famous 1892 painting to illustrate vanity. In the picture, a woman sits at a dressing table – a vanity, if you will – and gazes at herself in a mirror. The components of the image coalesce to form the outline of a skull. Superficially, it just looks like the outline of a skull, but if you look more closely, you will see a scene taking place beneath the symbol of death. It shows both subject and the viewer as part of the vanity of life.
All it takes is a little publicity and the macabre and the bizarre can become the next cool thing. When the jackets, tattoos and jewelry of Hell’s Angels were made famous by a few Hollywood movies in the 1950s, soon you could find decorative skulls in the most unlikely places. The skull became a fashion statement.
And not for the first time. Sasha Vinogradova used skulls, almost as a careless undertone to highlightplayful Russian artistic works. Georgia O’Keeffe made use of cow and horse skulls to illustrate her stories on canvas.The Aztecs and ancient Egyptians both independently employed the symbol of the skull to signify the never-ending circle of birth, death, and reincarnation.
And finally, what could be more macabre than the Viking tradition of toasting one another using the skull (Skal!) of their enemies as a cup?