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Death Throughout Art History

Death, an emotionally wrenching idea, has been both a subject for artists and an incentive for artistic production throughout history. Perhaps as much as, perhaps more than, any other subject, artists have dealt with death, dying, the threat of death, escape from death, thoughts of death, and preparation for death through the centuries.

The importance of death as a concept in ancient Egyptian culture is clearly seen in the creation of the pyramids and other burial artifacts. Ancient art in Greece focused on materialistic representations of life in an ideal state, including the physical perfection of its mythological heroes. This can be interpreted as art affirming life as the Greeks experienced it or desired life to be, and the cultural rejection of the finality of death. Looking at art in the Christian tradition with its focus on the death of its central figure, some art historians have described Christianity as a highly developed death cult; the idea of death, mediated through works of Christian art over the centuries, is ultimately affirming of life. Many artists in the period of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century were commissioned to work in service to the lay aristocracy and eventually the merchant class. The social hierarchy in this time was reinforced through highly developed techniques in portrait painting. Portraiture, seen as self-constructed identity through painting, constitutes a large segment of traditional Western art. Thus, art during the Enlightenment was closely linked to the idea of personal mortality. Major themes in modern art include the importance of self-expression in the face of the forces of mass conformity and antihumanist ideas. The universal theme of mortality is seen in many modern works, and death remains firmly established as a central theme in contemporary art, though the themes surrounding the concept of death are not as likely to reflect religious, romantic, or metaphysical concerns as they were in earlier historical periods.

No one can predict future directions in artists' responses to death, but it is most likely that humankind will continue to look to these visionaries to both document and inform our thinking. Mourners in Greece during the early fifth century were depicted striking their heads, tearing out their hair, beating their breasts, and scratching their cheeks until they bled. Today, many find solace from the largest ongoing community arts project in the world, the AIDS Memorial Quilt. In both instances, artists helped society commemorate the lives of deceased loved ones, and they supported the living in their efforts to find meaning and the strength to endure their tragic feelings of loss.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Death - Defining Death, Bereavement, Grief, And Mourning, Why Must People Die?, Historical Perspectives