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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.

Emblems of death are also prevalent in Masonic art and symbolism. Contemplation of mortality is a frequent theme in Masonic ritual and practice (see V.I.T.R.I.O.L. and Skull and Crossbones)

More symbols of Death

Symbols of the Day of the Dead

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The Day of the Dead is celebrated annually in Mexico on November 1st, coinciding with the Catholic observation of All Saint’s Day. The Day of the Dead is a uniquely Mexican

celebration, a cultural festival resembling Halloween in many ways, but with more cultural and spiritual meaning. The holiday combines elements of Catholicism with ancient Aztec symbolism, and honors the spirits of departed ancestors and loved ones who are believed to return to earth to join in the celebrations.

Outlined below are some of the more common emblems of this important cultural holiday:




Jose Posada / Public Domain


Calaveras- Mischievous Dead

Calaveras (skulls) are probably the most recognizable emblems of the Day of the Dead. Calaveras are whimsical caricatures-most commonly drawings- of skulls or skeletons. In most cases, calaveras are depicted in humorous settings, often in scenes depicting traditional activities. Common images include churches, weddings, musicians, dancers,politicians, policemen, and revolutionary soldiers. The Calaveras are often accompanied by mocking “epitaphs” of persons living and deceased, in the form of satirical poems.

The iconic image at left comes from artist José Guadalupe Posada, whose work has become an integral part of Day of the Dead celebrations, and who may have initiated the tradition in the nineteenth century. She is “Catrina,” a caricature of a wealthy woman of the nineteenth century, and she mocks anyone who takes materialistic pleasures too seriously.


Like Calaveras, Calacas are mischievous renditions of skeletal firgures. Calacas include paper mache skull masks and figurines of popular calaveras, such as Catrina. They are popular items for tourists to purchase as souvenirs. Calacas are sometimes adorned with the names of the deceased.

Sugar Skulls



Sugar Skulls

A common rendition of the Calaveras come in the form of sugar skulls, decorated confections of sugar and egg whites which are exchanged as gifts or incorporated into offrendas. You can find directions for creating sugar skulls here.




Perhaps the most serious emblem of the holiday is the Offrenda, an altar honoring the dead. Offrendas are most often created in honor of one’s ancestors or loved ones, and contain a number of traditional elements, many drawn from indigenous Mexican traditions:

  • Crosses and other religious emblems, including statuettes of saints
  • Water, sacred to indigenous pre-Columbian cultures, and a symbol of baptism and new life in the Catholic church.
  • Salt, a preservative and purifying agent
  • Copal, a native incense used by the Aztecs
  • Candles, whose light guides the dead
  • Flowers, particularly the Cempazúchitl, or flower of the dead- the marigold, sacred to Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the dead.
  • Offerings of toys and sweets for children, alcohol and cigarettes for adults. Common food offerings include fruits and pan de Muertos, a sweet egg bread shaped to resemble skulls and bones.

Papel Picado

Papel picado literally means “perforated paper,” and refers to the lacy, elaborate pierced tissue decorations popular during the holiday. Papel picado are created from layers of colorful tissue (or sometimes even plastic), and feature many of the same themes as other Day of the Dead decorations.


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