Skull and Crossbones Death Head
A skull and crossbones is your classic death head symbol that is still prominently featured today as a warning for poisonous substances as per the image seen on the left, which is classified in the European 2008 Classification, Labelling and Packaging Regulations.
The skull and crossbones death head depicted on headstones were commonly used as ‘Memento Mori‘ symbols in the 16th to 17th centuries. They were a warning to us all that we cannot avoid death and no matter what our status is in life, we are all the same.
Death heads were not always depicted with two crossed femurs (known as the crossbones) behind or below the skull. Sometimes you could have one femur as seen on the header image of this page, or you could have a skull gnawing on a femur of which I have yet to find.
The skull represents death and was influenced by the ossuaries or charnel houses of the early centuries. An ossuary is a building that contains lots of skulls and bones and was used when burial space was scarce. Bodies would be buried for a number of years in order to fully decompose and then dug up and the skeletal remains placed into a charnel house or ossuary.
The earliest skull and crossbones featured a crude skull with femurs crossed and the fashion of skull and crossbones carved onto headstones depended on the quality of craftsmanship of the local stone mason. Fashion and religious beliefs also dictated such imagery and sources of reference included wood carvings, architectural motifs, plaster work, books including the Bible and the customers requests.
On mine and Mark’s travels, we found lots of carved skulls and crossbones in 3D in Edinburgh and Northumberland, which is a great place to visit if you are a taphophile. For further reading about Northumberland and the best graveyards to visit, please venture on over to Memento Mori in Northumberland. It’s not uncommon in Northumberland to see a set of femurs crossed without a skull on the back of a headstone.
Changing Fashion of Cemetery Death Heads
As I mentioned earlier, the look of a cemetery death head was highly influenced by fashion, religious beliefs and attitudes of the times. Prior to the reformation in the 16th century, few headstones exist and commonly you will find stone sarcophagi and rare examples of cadavers on tombstones from the 14th and 15th centuries.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the winged skull, the skull and crossbones and the winged cherub head adorned lots of headstones and tombstones. The wings represented the ascension of the soul into Heaven or regeneration of the soul.
Green Man Death Head
In Scotland’s Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, I found a cemetery death head that resembles the ‘green man‘. After further research from the British Association for Local History, it is believed that the Green Man used as a cemetery death head is seen as a dual emblem. It’s hideous face may represent sinful flesh that decays and the sprouting greenery represents the resurrection.
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Winged Head and the Soul Effigy
The introduction of the Regency period, saw the skull and crossbones fall out of fashion and preference was given to the image of a cherub to represent the soul of the deceased and was referred to as a ‘winged head‘. In America, they call it a ‘soul effigy‘.
It also relayed an important message that those who found grace, might win Heaven. In England, the cherub’s face is similar to the face of the Renaissance putti, which is child like. [Ref: BAHL]
You will notice on the image of the twin cherub winged head below that the feathers have been replaced with foliage.
The Neoclassical period in Europe for visual arts began c. 1760 and was influenced by the arts of Rome and Ancient Greece. This period also coincided with the 18th century, Age of Enlightenment, which was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe. Many art students ventured on a grand tour of Europe and returned home from Italy with newly discovered Greco-Roman ideals. [ref: Wikipedia]
The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign starting in 1837 and lasting till her death in 1901.
During the centuries prior to the Victorian era, churchyards had been bursting at the seams with rotting corpses that were often visible in the cities due to over crowding, numerous plagues and diseases at the time due to poor sanitation. A solution from 1800 was to build dedicated garden cemeteries to dispose of the dead away from the cities. These are better known as Victorian Cemeteries and a whole new language of funerary art was created that saw the winged soul death head being slowly phased out. An excellent book to read on the subject of death and cemeteries is Catharine Arnold’s book titled Necropolis that I reviewed and highly recommend.
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