Rodena Waldmann Blog

Inspiration: Death and Design



What does death look like? Goya's corpse hauling itself out of the grave in Nada? Or like bloodied and gutted bodies hanging from trees like crows crowding onto a morbidly stiff and gnarled branch, pointing into the darkness in Jacques Callot's war etchings? The proliferation of skulls, taxidermy, vintage war paraphernalia and other incarnations of death in design as a massive trend might not interest me aesthetically, but conceptually the idea of living amongst the lifeless as a design choice is compellingly disquieting.  Maybe what is so disquieting about it, is how totally ordinary and not disquieting it really is in today's incarnation. Shouldn't it be uncomfortable to nonchalantly place a skull on the coffee table next to a stack of magazines and bowl of starburst? I mean at least Goya made death look like death for chrissake. What is death in design now but another wacky accessory meant to show the owner's irreverence.

When I was a child, the Museum of Natural History in New York reeked of stale morbidity. Stuffed and posed, glass eyes vacantly staring out of the lacquered faces of motionless rams and bison stuck behind glass dioramas like the world just suddenly ended one day. Realistically plastic flesh like "natives" caught forever in pre-history. It was really weird. It is really weird. But I sort of loved it. It smelled like death. albeit a comforting one.

In my personal experience, death isn't like paintings of twisted gore and sinew or 19th century German skeletons reaching out to the living but like the vacant glass eyes gazing from everywhere at nothing in particular, in the musty halls of a museum. It's packed away in the dusty boxes of clothes you hadn't seen stacked away in your parents' basement since college. It's a past life that lives in your current life. Sort of like the skull on the coffee table next to the stack of magazines and bowl of starbust. If it wasn't an animal skull or a mould of an African skull but rather your grandmother's skull sitting on the coffee table, people might say you were morbid, mad, weird and probably gross. Not the irreverent, hip, design cogniscento you and Domino magazine want you to be. But it would sort of be like how I view real death or how I think it should be at least. A jumble of times and static lives intertwined where the parted live with the present in a continuum.

But thru history, people have played with the aesthetic interpretations of death in ways colored by context and history. The rise of the self above the collective along with the dramatic decrease of mass plagues in the Western world has changed the meaning and import of death in our own minds and thus the depiction of death in visual media. The production of artifacts and works of fine art which depict death serve to illuminate the culturally held attitudes towards life, quality of life, community, religion and afterlife.


Ancient Egypt

As in many other cultures, the ancient Egyptians believed that death, rather than being the end of life, was instead a transition to a new one. After death, each person undertook a perilous journey to the land of the dead where they were judged and if lucky, reborn into the afterlife. Complex burial rituals were undertaken in order to ensure immortality. the best technique took 70 days and involved removing the internal organs, removing the brain through the nose, and desiccating the body in a mixture of salts called natron. The preservation of the body was of utmost concern as the soul, which continued after death, needed a place of domicile. The mummified body was place inside of a coffins for protection. The coffin would be in the shape of a standing figure and would depict idealized image of the dead individual. The symbols and decorations on the coffin were designed to ensure the deceased’s rebirth and well- being in the afterlife. If the body was not mummified, an afterlife was not possible. Generally two wedjat eyes to ward of the evil were drawn on the casket and the sky-goddess Nut would her wings protectively over the body. Lower down are figures of the Four Sons of Horus, guardians of the internal organs.

Anubis is the Greek name for a jackal-headed god associated with mummification and the afterlife in Egyptian mythology.

Ancient Egyptian Funerary Scene

Death mask

Ritualistic Honoring of the Dead

In many cultures the dead, rather than being burried and forgotten, are incorporated amongst the living in ritualistic ceremonies. For example, The Asmat people of New Guinea hold a ceremony called the jipae where the living honour and say farewell to departed ancestors. During the ceremony performers wear woven masks of string and sago palms leaves, such as the one illustrated. The masks cover the body and the performers impersonate a particular person who has died since the last ceremony. Afterwards the performer takes on the dead person's responsibilities, including bringing up their children. This means that the spirits of the dead, korwan, can see their families are being well looked after. Korwan also refers to the actual skull of the dead dead ancestor as well as the carved, wooden sculptures meant to represent them. These sculptures, like reliquaries, often contain the ancestor's skull as well. These figures are carved during the lifetime of the deceased so they will be ready to be immediately occupied by the spirit at the moment of death. These statues usually are placed within the home so that a part of them can serve as protectors of the living and intermediaries between the living and spirit realms.

In the vein of maintaining an uninterrupted spiritual bond with the flesh and bones of the deceased, some tribal societies, such as New Guinea, engage/d in cannibalism. The eating of the flesh of the deceased is a manner of guiding the souls of the dead into the living bodies of the descendants by whom they are consumed. It is believed by such individuals that in consuming the body of the deceased, the person ingesting the body is also attaining the virtues and attributes of the dead. In this way, life and death are a continuum.

I recommend Kathryn Coe's work on the subject entitled The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art as Adaptation for further reading.

As a moderate collector of korwar statuary, I find the subject particularly interesting. Also...In my former, albeit brief, life as an ethnographic anthropologist, I was working at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and finally for freaking once, drama struck! A woman came in and recognized a skull of an ancestor from New Guinea and demanded its return! probably the most eventful happening at the Pitt Rivers in quite some time and very welcome respite from labeling Inuit canoes in the back room.

Asmat Tribe human ancestor skull, New Guinea

Ancestor Board, Papua New Guinea

Female Korwar, New Guinea


In the European Middle Ages it was believed that a saint’s soul went to heaven on death. There he or she could intercede on behalf of the faithful. However, their physical body parts or relics were carefully preserved as they were believed to be holy and have magical healing powers. They were often encased in precious containers or reliquaries and displayed in churches. Their veneration was an important part of Medieval Christian worship and pilgrims made long journeys to shrines containing relics, to pray for their souls and ask for cures. This life size reliquary of St Eustace, in the form of an idealised head, contains fragments of the saint’s skull. It originally came from the Cathedral Treasury in Basel, Switzerland and might have been displayed on an altar. It has large staring eyes which invite communication and suggest the powerful presence of the saint watching over the community.

17th Century Reliquary Bust, Belgium

Reliquary hand, ca 1250, Belgium

The Stavelot Reliquary, ca 1156

Reliquary of Man of Sorrows

Grave gifts for the afterlife

Like the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Chinese believed that the world they passed into after death was similar to the living world. They were therefore buried with objects and models of things they had used in their earthly lives. This glazed ceramic bowl depicts a pond with a large tree in the middle. The pond contains fish and frogs, whilst ducks and a tortoise sit on the rim. A man is catching fish in an imaginary net and two men are shooting birds out of the tree. Perhaps the owner particularly enjoyed the pleasures of hunting and fishing and wanted to continue enjoying these pursuits in the world beyond.

Such tombs contained models representing ordinary people’s daily lives such as replicas of buildings, carts or farmyards of animals. The wealthy and powerful were buried with different types of objects that were intended to maintain their rank, status and lifestyle in the next world. Tomb figures of soldiers, evoking military power, were buried with emperors or generals and the burial goods of nobility might include ceramic models of servants and entertainers, so they could continue to enjoy the banquets and festivities of their mortal lives.

Ming Dynasty burial figurines

Interior of Cao Cao's tomb, Ruler of the Kingdom of Wei from 208-220 AD

Han Dynasty burial figures

Middle Ages in Europe

Florentine humanist Giovanni Boccaccio describes horrifying fatalities of the Black Death (Yersinia pestis bacteria) in The Decameron stating that,"In...1348 the deadly plague broke out in the great city of Florence...It spread without stop from one place to another until, unfortunately, it swept over the west . . Such was the cruelty of heaven and to a great degree of man that between March and the following July it is estimated that more than 100,000 human beings lost their lives within the walls of Florence." The Bubonic Plague was so unsparing in its consumption of lives that there was no question of protection along class lines. Because the plague and thus death was so much the backdrop of life during the middle ages in Europe, death in daily life is depicted frequently in artistic works.

Like in ancient Egypt, the sculptural decoration of tombs reflected the status of the deceased. Starting in the 13th century, carved effigies, or transi tombs, showed kings with crown and scepter, churchmen accompanied by angels, knights in full armor, architects with measuring instruments, or even kneeling beside the Virgin as she holds her crucified son on her lap.


“Tomb effigies of the deceased lying in a recumbent position, commonly known as ‘gisants,’ may date to as early as the tenth century in Europe and became common from the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. In later years, tombs showed entire families, carved and brightly painted, kneeling in prayer and awaiting the final day of judgment. Royal bodies were often divided up and specific body parts placed in reliquaries. Eleanor of Castille, for example, left instructions that her heart go to the Dominicans in London, her entrails to Lincoln, and her body to Westminster. The tomb of Louis IX, canonized as a saint, was a shrine to which the faithful came to pray. Some royal and saintly tombs were elevated, so that they could be seen more easily but also so that the devout and the sick could not only touch the tomb but even insert themselves or a part of themselves into niches, thus enhancing the possibility of a cure from disease or of the saint's supplications on their behalf at the Day of Judgment.

Early Medieval tomb

Funerary Mask of Herbert Lasnier, ca 1290

"The Mourners", medieval tomb sculptures from the Court of Burgundy

Tomb of Archbishop Henry Chicele, ca 1443

Tomb of Henry IV, Canterbury Cathedral


Dance of Death

The dance of death as an aesthetic genre originates in 15th century France with the 1424 painting of the Cimitiere des Innocents in Paris. Later, similar paintings turned up all over Western and Central Europe. The dances of death are generally painted on the walls of churches, cloisters and family vaults and usually depict at minimum a corpse or skeleton with a live person of the same social class as the deceased. It is possible to find engravings of the dance of the dance of death by artists such as Hans Holbein in manuscripts and books. The dances of death follow a certain sequence in which "death" addresses its victim in script above or below the painting. Death initiates the conversation with his "victim" in a tone which generally alternates between menacing and sarcastic. Man implores death to spare him and begs for mercy but instead he leads him to the dance which is comprised of members of every social rank from emperors and knights to peasants and children. The recurrent message is that social status and rank will not save you from dancing with death. Man or woman, prince or pauper, death will lead you with his morbid siren song to dance with your fate. The ultimate message of the dance of death was for all men to remember that he too shall die and to forsake the earthy riches which can cause one to stray from a Christian life because they will be forsaken at death's knock.

Alfred Rethel, Death as the Avenger

Hans Holbein, The Noble Lady from Dance of Death, 16th century

Vado Mori

While not visual art, the Vado Mori (I prepare myself to die) were poems originating in the 13th century in preparation of death. Here, like in the dance of death, man of various social rank lament death despite its imminence. Unlike in the dance of death, however, "death" does not engage with the living.

Death and the Maiden

Death and the Maiden can be said to originate in the ancient Greek abduction of Persephone by Hades. Persephone was shown as a beautiful and youthful goddess who while picking flowers was abducted by Hades into the underworld. This theme of death coming for innocent females continued well into the renaissance and is referred to as "death and the maiden" iconography. In most dancing with death sequences, a young and attractive woman is represented, however, in death and the maiden paintings, there is no text and the young woman is alone with death, often nude in a sexualized context. There is an erotic subtext to death and the maiden, where the woman is for example being kissed on the neck from behind and is semi disrobed. It is an interesting concept, because while it is thought that the intention was to critique women's vanity (even youthful beauty will rot in death) it also serves as potentially loaded discourse on historical female sexuality.

Hans Baldburg Grien: Death and the Maiden 1517

Hans Baldung, Death and the Maiden

Edvard Munch, Death and the Maiden, 1984

Vaudeville "Death and the Lady" 

Theda Bara, "The Vamp", silent screen star

The Triumph of Death

The triumph of Death shows death in embattled fights with the living. the men attempt to fight their inevitable death but ultimately are always defeated. Like in dancing with death, the men engaged in battle with Death are of every social rank and class.

Triumph of Death Wall Painting, ca. 1448, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo

Artemio Rodriguez, The Triumph of Death (detail), 2007. Woodcut in nine panels 

The Triumph of Death, Peter Bruegel, 1562

For further reading on the plague, DNA testing and art, please read: