Allez, vivants, luttez, pauvres futurs squelettes

A few days ago, I ran into two friends at the local pub. It was quite late and the conversation lagged a bit, but at some point it turned to the macabre and picked up a little. Death is always a good subject for table conversation, because it is something everybody taking part in a discussion will have in common. As a topic it’s like the weather, but with a bit more bite.

Perhaps it is due to the secularization of our culture that we tend to speak of death very differently from our ancestors. The memento mori, in earlier times, was there to remind one to act in a way that does not jeopardize one’s chances in the afterlife, but as that second life has dwindled away it has become more common to state, as a platitude, that one should live this one to the fullest. As our lives have become in this sense meaningless, we have been charged with the troublesome task of finding a purpose for it by ourselves. Art can help us do that, but there are problems.

As I said, people who made art in the past saw death in a different light. And then some. Hans Holbein the Younger used an inexplicable device to remind us of death in his Ambassadors, now hanging and confusing people in the National Gallery. It shows two robust men whose identities were unclear for the longest time accompanied with a number of meticulously painted object that symbolize . . . things that have been unclear for the longest time.

Source: Wikipedia

Then there’s that blur, that anamorphic skull which shows up only when it’s seen from the correct angle.

Source: Wikipedia

The room where the painting hangs seemed a bit too small to enable a proper look at the skull, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on with the perspectival trickery here and what has to be done with it. Technically, the skull is brilliant. In terms of composition, it ruins a perfectly fine painting. Then there’s the symbolic meaning of the thing. I have no idea why it is there and what it is supposed to mean. Yes, it speaks of mortality, but why paint this horrid thing instead of some nice little extra trinket on the table? I haven’t found an explanation to this day.

In contrast, Holbein’s Dance of Death series has always been close to my heart because of its clarity. There’s a story and there is a moral to the story. Take, for instance, this piece which is my favorite.

Source: Wikipedia

The happy couple strolls along the path, death banging his drum as they march to the inevitable. It might be some sort of nagging Protestant idea where you should not cherish a moment of happiness without keeping a sombre attitude about your merry business, or, better yet, the artist’s protest against the jacked-up solemnity of the Reformation. In any case, it is a reminder that death is present everywhere, even in the starry eyes of two lovers. This was a warning to the people of Holbein’s time to keep God in their minds and fear his punishment. To us the banging of death’s drum is in a major key. It is ever present and makes every moment of our lives joyously unique.

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