Representations of Death in Art

Posted on November 30, 2016 by Martin Oaks under Memorial
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As we have noted before, death has been personified and symbolized by artists essentially since the beginning of time. Images really became prolific during the Bronze Age (c. 2500- c. 800 BC). The grim reaper, the rider on a pale horse, the angel of death, skeletons, skulls, stopped/handless clocks, menacing animals and horrific skies filled with lightening are among the more popular representations.

Offering explanations for this art, philosophers from Socrates to Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as psychologists including Freud and dozens of others have all reached a variety of conclusions. Somehow the awareness of death either intensifies our sense of life or it desensitizes us to the harsh reality of our own mortality.

One of our favorite film makers, Ingmar Bergman, spent a considerable chunk of his career exploring death and related spiritual issues. His images are unforgettable. Above is his famous “Dance of Death” sequence from the movie, The Seventh Seal. Below, from the dream sequence in Wild Strawberries, is an evocative depiction of a clock which represents the lead character’s realization that his time on earth is limited.


Both Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal creatively examine our human reactions to life’s finality. At one point in Seal, a knight (played by Max Von Sydow) plays chess with Death, allowing a family to slip away from his icy grip.

In another unforgettable moment from Seal, the knight prays for mercy “because we are small and frightened and ignorant.”

Less allegorical in nature, Strawberries is a fairly straightforward story of an aging professor coming to terms with his impending demise. Daydreams, nightmares, reminiscences and a road trip all coalesce to bring closure/affirmation to his journey. If you want to see one truly excellent Bergman picture, this would be our recommendation. Love the line “you’re guilty of guilt,” classic Bergman dialogue.


In closing, Bergman’s trilogy – Winter Light, The Silence, and Through a Glass Darkly — are all filled with spiritual ruminations about various struggles of life, including the subject of death. All three are worth seeing, none particularly joyful, but all absorbing.

Do you have any special films or images that concern themselves with this topic? If so, please pass them along. These can be grim or creepy subjects, but they deal with one of life’s inevitable that we see on a daily basis.

Martin Oaks would like to thank our readers for all of your responses. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact us 24/7, at (469) 605-7215. Ask us about our direct cremations in Arlington TX, McKinney, Sherman, and Waco.




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