Medieval and Renaissance art made use of a number of emblems to symbolize death and mortality. Although a central theme of Christianity for hundreds of years the was triumph over death, the onset of the black plague altered public perception, and the emphasis was placed on the triumph of death over life and the necessity of repentance. Symbols of resurrection common in Christian art became less popular as reminders of the impermanence of life and the punishments of hell became ubiquitous.
The most common symbols of mortality were the grim reaper and his scythe, the death’s head, and the hourglass, all appropriated from icons of Greek and Roman Paganism. Slogans such as “remember death” and “all is vanity” were omnipresent- death was around the corner, and one had better repent if one was to avoid an eternity of damnation. The source of these macabre symbols was, ironically, the paganism that Christianity had supposedly replaced.*
In ancient times, the emblem of the God Saturn (Chronos to the Greeks) was the scythe, which represented the nature of the cycles of time. The scythe symbolized not only impermanence (all things living will be cut down), but the nature of the life cycle- plants must die to feed animals, and the tool of the harvest is depicts the necessity of death for the renewal of life. Thus, death was depicted as a natural part of the passage of time. The image of Chronos devouring his children seems macabre, but illustrates that the the Greeks believed the passage of time is so inevitable that even the gods were consumed by it.
The hourglass is another emblem of time, although hidden within is the promise of life- because the hourglass is reversible, it held within a promise of resurrection, a symbolism not lost on everyone- all of these emblems later became symbols of resurrection to Freemasons and Rosicrucians who grasped their true ancient meanings.
The skull was a frequent companion to ascetic desert saints in numerous Christian artworks, and was often paired with the book, a symbol of studiousness. In this manifestation, the death’s head was less ominous, and symbolized the rejection of the impermanent material world for the life of the spirit. Mary Magdalene is probably the best known example of these two emblems in art.
*Some scholars theorize that the appropriation of ancient symbolism was a subconscious (or even deliberate) attempt to appease the old gods.
In later times, death was depicted as a process of the alchemical arts. Common alchemical emblems included the crow, the skull, and the tomb as symbols of the necessary death of the ego/personality.
More symbols of Death