History of the skull as symbol


Still-life with a skull (vanitas) by Philippe de Champaigne.

think of the scene from shakespeare’s hamlet where the prince holds a skull of yorick, a former servant, bemoaning the pointlessness and temporary nature of worldly matters. certain themes characteristic of a specific philosophy have been commonly represented during an era, and an iconography has been developed to express them. an example is the still life vanitas vanitatum of the middle ages, a reminder of the transitory quality of earthly pleasure symbolized by a skull. pictorial arrangements are dealing with the vanity of the intellectual world (globe, books), and of the ‘vita voluptaria’ (musical instruments, smoking implements). often painters continued the old tradition of including appropriate captions or texts on their pictures. the favourite was the admonition from ecclesiastes I: ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’. the transience of human existence is often brought out also by other symbols like the candle and the hourglass.