Skull Art
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Tracing the History of the Human Skull in Art

INTRO

Anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record about 195,000 years ago1. The earliest human artistic representations date from around 100,000 B.C.2 The earliest verifiable artistic use of the human skull, however, did not occur until around 7000 B.C. in Jericho (in modern day Palestine).3  This also happens to be one of the oldest inhabited cities on the planet.  Archeologists have discovered the remnants of more than 20 successive settlements in the area dating back to around 10,000 B.C.4  This would imply that Jericho sprung up right around the same time that humans were able to abandon a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in exchange for permanent agricultural settlements.  With such permanent settlements came permanent graves, and hence the handling of human remains for burial.

Plastered skull, from Jericho, State of Palestine, Neolithic Period, about 8000-7500 BC

Plaster skull from Jericho, 7000-6000 B.C.

The common practice at the time was to bury the bodies beneath the home.  In most cases, the skull was removed first.  After removing any flesh, the face and head were remodelled with plaster, and shells or cowries were used in place of the eyes.  They were then painted to resemble the dead, and displayed in the home.  Similar plaster skulls have also been found in Syria and Jordan. 3 Thus, the first use of the human skull in art seems to have been funerary in nature, a memorial of sorts.  And thus began a long history, continued to this very day, of remembering and celebrating the memory of the dead with art. 

ZAPOTEC & MIXTECA MOSAIC SKULLS

The ancient Zapotec and Mixteca people of Oaxaca and Puebla had a practice similar to the inhabitants of Jericho.  The skulls of their ancestors were mixed with ivory, bamboo, jade, turquoise, and other minerals to show the status of the ancestor.  There are many examples that have been recovered from the Monte Alban site outside Oaxaca, dating anywhere from 500 B.C. to 900 A.D.  These have even been compared to the famous Damien Hirst piece, "For the Love of God."5  It's easy to see how such a comparison could be made.

Mosaic Skull, Western Oaxaco or Puebla, 1400-1521

For the Love of God, Damien Hirst, 2007

ARTIFICIAL CRANIAL DEFORMATION

Artificial cranial deformation (or head binding) is a form of body modification in which the skull is intentionally deformed into an elongated, rounded or flat shape.  This is usually done during infancy, while the skull is still pliable, by using a crudely engineered device such as a cradleboard.  It was once commonly practiced in numerous unrelated cultures separated both geographically and chronologically, and though far more rare, it still occurs in some cultures today.  It's use most likely predates written history, but the earliest written record is from Hippocrates in 400 B.C.6  It is known to have been practiced by the Huns7 and Alans8 in the Old World, by the Maya9 and Inca10 in Central and South America, and by numerous different North American tribes like the Chinookan11,12 and Choctaw.13  Some isolated instances have also been found in Tahiti, Samoa, and Hawaii, among other places.14    

Proto Nazca deformed skull, c 200-100 BC

Painting by Paul Kane, showing a Chinookan child in the process of having its head flattened, and an adult after the process.

While some might argue that this is not art, I prefer to categorize it as a form of body modification, alongside piercing, scarification, implants, and tattooing.  It was probably performed to signify a group affiliation or as a sign of social status in ancient cultures.  It is also possible it was done to create a more aesthetically pleasing appearance.15  All of these are still very much the same reasons that body modification is done today.

Rick Genest (aka Zombie Boy).

Skull scarification.

Skull implants.

SKULL RACKS

Skull racks, or tzompantli, were a type of scaffold-like construction used to display rows and columns of human skulls, sort of like a large macabre abacus.16  Their use has been documented in several Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Toltec, Mayans, and Aztecs.  The skulls usually came from war captives or sacrificial victims.  They were in use from 600 A.D. to 1250 A.D.17, though it is possible they were in use as early as 200 B.C. in the Zapotec civilization in modern Mexico.18

A tzompantli is illustrated to the right of a depiction of an Aztec temple dedicated to the deity Huitzilopochtli; from Juan de Tovar's 1587 manuscript, also known as the Ramírez Codex.

Tzompantli or skull rack at the Templo Mayor museum in Mexico City.

Tzompantli skull rack base.

The Toltec capital of Tula, which flourished from 800 A.D. to 1200 A.D. in Central Mexico, were the first people in the area to show a real obsession with skulls and skeletons.  The Toltec skull racks were large stone platforms with rows of skulls carved into the sides.19  The obsession was passed on by the Toltec to the Maya, who decapitated the losing players at their Chichen Itza ball courts and displayed the skulls on their tzompantli.20  The Aztecs brought the practice to yet another level due to their ongoing Flowery Wars.21  Requiring a constant and steady supply of sacrifices, they would conduct raids to capture enemy soldiers.22  The heart of the captive would be torn from his chest, and then he would be pushed down the stairs in front of the temple.  His limbs would be given to the warrior who captured him, for the purpose of cannibalizing.23  The skull, of course,  would end up on a tzompantli.  The tzompantli at Tenochitlan (the largest of the Aztec cities) had some 136,000 skulls in it.24

Excavated base of a small skull rack by the foundations of the Great Pyramid in Mexico City.

Tzompantli skull rack at a Chichen Itza ball court.

Tzompantli or skull rack at the Templo Mayor museum in Mexico City.

The tzompantli may have been an influence on the design of New Yorks well known Goldbar, considering the love of both skulls and gold displayed by cultures like the Aztecs. And because they preceeded the European ossuaries, and we know the Spanish and others witnessed them, it is certainly a possibility that the tzompantli influenced the design of the many ossuaries that followed.

The Goldbar in New York City

The modern artistic use of skulls in trees has it's origins with the Aztecs as well. According to the Popol Vuh (a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic K'iche' kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands), when Hun Hunahpu (father of the Maya hero Twins) was killed by the lords of the Underworld, his head was hung in a gourd tree.25 This, and the image of skulls in trees as if they were fruit, is a common indicator of a tzompantli.26 Such imagery continues to be used in art today, though modern artists probably remain ignorant of it's origins.

OTHER AZTEC SKULL ART

Aztec skull art was not limited to skull racks, however.  In fact, the skull as a symbol was extremely important to the Aztecs, and appeared in art dedicated to many of their deities.  The themes of warfare, death, fertility and renewal were often closely intertwined in Aztec culture.27

One of the duties of the lower-middle classes skilled workers was the creation of jewelry to be worn by the nobility.  The presence of one or more skulls in such jewelry was indicative of a high ranking or upper class individual.  One such item was a carved shell skull necklace found in the ceremonial center of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.  This necklace is now part of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, and is believed to have belonged to a high-ranking military commander.28  Evidence of this comes from illustrations in the Codex Mendoza showing military commanders in full regalia, part of which appears to be just such a skull necklace.29  A similar necklace, but made of gold and turquoise, was also found in Tenochtitlan.  Based on the materials, it most likely belonged to someone in the rulership caste.27

Aztec Skull Necklace Carved from Shell.

Illustration from the Codex Mendoza depicting military commanders in full regalia.

Aztec gold and turquoise skull necklace (detail).

There are many examples of Aztec sculpture with a skull theme as well, the majority of which are depicting deities.  Coatlicue, the "Mother of the Gods", was the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon and stars.  She was also the patron to women who died in childbirth.  She was represented as a woman wearing a skirt of writhing snakes and a necklace of human hearts, hands, and skulls.30  Xolotl was the god of lightning, fire, sickness, and deformities.  He was depicted as a skeletal figure.31

Aztec sculpture of Coatlicue.

Standing figure of the god Xolotl. Nephritoid stone with shell inlay, c. 1370-1521.

DAY OF THE DEAD

 The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), focuses on remembering and honoring the departed, and it's roots have been traced back to the Aztec festival in honor of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess who ruled and watched over the dead.  These festivals evolved from Aztec traditions into the modern Day of the Dead after synthesis with Spanish traditions. She now presides over the contemporary festival as well. Mictecacihuatl is known as the Lady of the Dead, since it is believed that she was born, then sacrificed as an infant.32,33,34 Mictecacihuatl was represented with a defleshed body and with jaw agape to swallow the stars during the day.35  Modern Day of the Dead celebrations are filled with skull and skeleton imagery, including sugar skulls, calaveras makeup, masks, ofrendas (altars in memory of the dead), tattoos, dolls, parade floats, etc.

The holiday has spread throughout many parts of the world, in turn influencing the use of the skull and skeleton in art.  There are similar celebrations in virtually every corner of the world now, from the America's to Europe and Asia.  It is perhaps one of the greatest influences on skull-themed art worldwide, at least in recent times.36-50

Mictecacihuatl, Musée national d'anthropologie de Mexico

Day of the Dead celebrants.

Sugar skulls.

Mexican political printmaker and engraver José Guadalupe Posada created a parody of an upper-class Mexican female entitled La Calavera Catrina, in which she was depicted as a skeleton in fashionable attire.  This striking figure has since become associated closely with the Day of the Dead holiday, and Catrina figures are often part of the observances.  The Catrina figure, and many other elements of the Day of the Dead, continue to influence artists today, such as Laurie Lipton.51,52

Lady of the Dead Catrina doll.

La Calavera Catrina by José Guadalupe Posada.

La Catrina by Laurie Lipton.


BUDDHISM/HINDUISM

The Buddhist use of the skull stems largely from religious beliefs and practices, and dates from at least the 6th century in the form of the kapala, a type a decorated skull cup, as recounted in the Dashakumaracharita.53  While the use was largely ceremonial, the decoration could often be incredibly ornate, and they can certainly be classified as art.54  The kapala, in similar fashion to the European vanitas and memento mori, served as a reminder of our mortality.53  Skulls are donated by family members (even today) to Buddhist monasteries in places such as Tibet for just this purpose.55

Some figures in esoteric Buddhist imagery would be portrayed with a staff having three skulls (kapalas) impaled upon it, referred to as a khatvanga.  The symbolism behind the elements of the khatvanga staff was very complicated, as explained by Beer in his Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols..  The form of the Buddhist khatvanga was derived from an earlier, similar staff used by Indian Shaivite yogis, who were called kapalikas (skull bearers).  Such staves were originally created entirely of bone.56

Khatvanga.

Khatvanga.

Indian Shaivite Yogi (Kapalika).

Figures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in their wrathful forms often display a crown of five skulls, where each skull represents the death of a negative quality (anger, desire, etc.) in Buddhist teaching. 55 This was originally part of an entire bone costume, first mentioned in the biography of Marpa the Translator (1012-1097).  The complete costume was comprised of the crown, armlets, bracelets, anklets, apron, chest piece, earrings, and 3 separate necklaces.  The bone costume is no longer in use though, and has been replaced by a simple foldable painted crown.55,57,58  

Bhairava, the wrathful form of Shiva, wearing a 5 skull crown.

Vajrakila with a 5 skull crown (one on each of his three heads), holding a khatvanga.

Statue of Vajrapani wearing a 5 skull crown.

Bone apron.

A pair of dancing skeletons, called the Chitipati, appear in the tangkas (paintings used for teaching and meditation) among Himalayan Buddhists.  They are sometimes referred to as the Lords of the Charnel Ground.  Each of them holds a staff in the form of a skull and spinal cord, and typically one holds a kapala (skull cup).59  This brings to mind the European Danse Macabre.  Among the Drepung Loseling monks, there is something known as "The Dance of the Lords of the Cemetery", in which the dancers don bright red robes decorated with bones.  The dance is meant to be symbolic of the temporary nature of life, much the same as in the Danse Macabre.55

A nineteenth-century Tibetan depiction of the Lords of the Charnel Ground.

Tibetan Cham Dance costume made of papier mache and fabric.

Chitipati sculpture from the Richard Harris collection.

Imagery of Hindu deities are full of symbolism.  The dancing form of Lord Shiva is a great example.  In addition to all the other symbolism, he is often pictured with a skull on his head, which is meant to symbolise his conquest over death.60  His necklace is often depicted as a garland of skulls.61  Hindu deities that may be depicted with the kapala include Durga, Kālī and Shiva, especially in his Bhairava form. Even Ganesha, when adopted into Tibetan Buddhism as Maharakta Ganapati, is shown with a kapala filled with blood.62

Dancing Lord Shiva with skull crown.

The Chamunda, a form of Durga, seen in Halebidu temple of Hoysala architecture, in black or red color, is described as wearing a garland of severed heads or skulls (Mundamala). She is described as having four, eight, ten or twelve arms, holding a Damaru (drum), trishula (trident), sword, a snake (nāga), skull-mace (khatvanga), thunderbolt (vajra), a severed head and panapatra (drinking vessel, wine cup) or skull cup (kapala), filled with blood.62

Chamunda.

Chamunda.

MEMENTO MORI


Memento mori is Latin for "remember that you will die".63  The phrase is believed to have come about in ancient Rome, spoken to a victorious general by his slave.64  In the arts, it was intended to be a reflection on mortality and the importance of the afterlife in comparison to the temporary earthly life.  It was especially prevalent in European Christian art, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, divine judgement, and the salvation of the soul. To the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasize the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and to focus instead on the prospect of the afterlife.65,66  While most often discussed separately, both the Danse Macabre and ossuary chapels and tombs are examples of memento mori just as much as any paintings or sculptures are.

Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation by Hans Memling, 1485

The Braque Family Triptych (Outer panels), 1452

 

DANSE MACABRE


My full history of the Danse Macabre is available here. In short, the Danse Macabre can be viewed as a subset of memento mori.

OSSUARIES

An ossuary, in it's most basic form, is a depository for skeletal remains.67  They have often been used where there is limited burial space.68  The Zoroastrians of Persia were perhaps the first to employ them some 3,000 years ago, though they were simply deep wells with no decoration or artistry.  They called them 'astudans' (which literally translates as 'the place for the bones').69  There are many stunning examples of ossuaries in Europe, most of which were connected to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.70  It was also practiced by the Jews during the time of the Second Temple.71

Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini

Located in Rome, this church was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII.  In 1631, Cardinal Antonio Barberini ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars to be transferred to the crypt beneath the church.  It now contains the remains of some 4,000 friars buried between 1500 and 1870.  The remains are arranged in elaborate Baroque and Rococo style, creating a detailed, beautiful, but  macabre work of art.  In true memento mori fashion, a plaque in one of the chapels reads "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be."

The crypt once rivalled the Paris Catacombs as a tourist attraction, and is said to have inspired both the Sedlec Ossuary and the Skull Chapel in Poland.  It was visited by the Marquis de Sade in 1775.  It contains a total of six named rooms: The Crypt of Resurrection, The Mass Chapel, the Crypt of the Skulls, the Crypt of the Pelvises, the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones, and the Crypt of the Three Skeletons.72-74

A pair of mummifed arms serve as a centerpiece in this mural.

The Crypt of Pelvises.

The grim reaper, complete with scythe and scales, hangs suspended from the ceiling.

The Crypt of Skulls.

San Bernadino alle Ossa

This church is located in Milan, Italy, and had it's beginnings as a small room built in 1210 to house bones from a nearby cemetery.  The church itself was not built until 1269, and the actual Rococo-style decorating was not done until 1679 by Giovanni Andrea Biffi.  Destroyed by fire in 1712, it was rebuilt and expanded upon.75,76

Sedlec Ossuary

The Sedlec Ossuary (located in the Czech Republic) is one of my personal favorites, and it has an interesting story behind it.  In 1278 the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec was sent to the Holy Land by the Bohemian king.  He returned with a sample of dirt from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery.  Golgotha, for those who do not know, was the site of the crucifixion of Christ, and translates from the Aramaic as "place of the skull".  This is something of a strange coincidence, as the church would eventually come to be filled with the skulls and skeletal remains of somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people.77  

Chapel Interior.

Entrance.

Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms made with bones.

The cemetery came to be overcrowded, especially after the Black Death ravaged the population in the 14th century, and the Hussite Wars in the 15th century.  And so it was that in 1511, a single half-blind monk of the church was given the task of exhuming all the skeletons and stacking the bones in the chapel.  And there they remained until 1870, when a woodworker by the name of Frantisek Rint was given the task of arranging all the bones into the ordered form they exhibit today.  Four enormous pointed pillars, stacked with skulls, occupy the corners.  An enormous chandelier, containing at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the ceiling.  Frantisek Rint even added his signature, completed entirely in bone.77

Signature of F. Rint written with bones.

This chandelier contains at least one of every bone in the human body.

Coins left as an offering.

This particular ossuary has also been very influential in media, being featured in numerous books and movies in one way or another.  It was, for example, the influence for the lair of Dr. Satan in the Rob Zombie horror classic House of 1000 Corpses.78

Scene from the film 'House of 1000 Corpses'.

Scene from the film 'House of 1000 Corpses'.

Skull Chapel at Czermna

The Skull Chapel in Czermna is a chapel located in Kudowa-Zdrój, Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland.  The chapel was built in 1776 by the Czech local parish priest Waclaw Tomaszek. It is the mass grave of people who died during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), three Silesian Wars (1740–1763), and various ravaging diseases.81  Together with J. Schmidt and grave digger J. Langer, father Tomaszek who was inspired by the Capuchin cemetery while on a pilgrimage to Rome, collected the casualties’ bones, cleaned and put them in the chapel within 18 years (from 1776 to 1794).82 Walls of this small, baroque church are filled with three thousand skulls, and there are also bones of another 21 thousand people interred in the basement. The skulls of people who built the chapel, including father Tomaszek, were placed in the center of the building and on the altar in 1804. Inside are a crucifix and two carvings of angels, one with a Latin inscription that reads "Arise from the Dead" are among the bones.83

Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. interior.

Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. Poland - Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - altar with skulls.

Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. Poland - Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - altar with skulls.

Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. Poland - Czermna - Chapel of Skulls - ceiling.

Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland. Kaplica Czaszek w Czermnej. interior.

Capela dos Ossos

The Capela dos Ossos in Évora, Portugal, was built in the 16th century by a Franciscan monk who, in true memento mori fashion, wanted to prod his fellow brothers into contemplation and transmit the message of life being transitory. This is clearly shown in the famous warning at the entrance: “We bones that here are, for yours await".84.85

Capela dos ossos' entrance.

Capela dos ossos' entrance warning ("We bones, lying here, for yours we wait").

The chapel walls and pillars are decorated in carefully arranged bones and skulls held together by cement. The ceiling is made of white painted brick and is painted with death motifs. The number of skeletons of monks was calculated to be about 5000, coming from the cemeteries that were situated inside several dozen churches. Some of these skulls have been scribbled with graffiti. Two desiccated corpses, one of which is a child, dangle from ropes. And at the roof of chapel, the phrase "Melior est die mortis die nativitatis (Better is the day of death than the day of birth)" (Ecclesiastes 7:1) is written.84,85

Wall detail.

Skeletons hanging from ropes.

Chapel interior.

Inside the Capela dos Ossos a poem about the need to reflect on one's existence hangs in an old wooden frame on one of the pillars. It is attributed to Fr. António da Ascenção Teles, parish priest of the village of São Pedro (wherein the Church of Saint Francis with its Capela dos Ossos was erected) from 1845 to 1848.84,85

Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.

The Paris Catacombs

My full history of the Paris Catacombs is available here.

VANITAS

Vanitas art is very closely related to memento mori.  In particular, they share the common element of an emphasis on the temporary nature of life and worldly possessions, and the certainty of death.  Vanitas art, however, refers to a specific period of still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, and derives it's name from the Latin word for vanity.86,87

Common vanitas symbols include, of course, the skull, as well as rotten fruit, bubbles, smoke, watches, timepieces, hourglasses, and musical instruments.86,87

The concept behind vanitas was captured succinctly when Andy Warhol said "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."  Fame, it seems, is just vanity personified, and it too is only temporary.88

Antonio de Pereda, 1634.

Anonymous from 17th century French school.

Adriaen van Utrecht- Vanitas - Still Life with Bouquet and Skull (1640's).

After Pieter Claeszoon, Vanitas-Still-Life, c. 1634.

Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, Pieter Claesz, 1628.

Vanitas by Edward Collier (1668).

Vanitas, by Pieter Claesz (1629).

Vanitas by Johann de Cordua (1664).

PIRATE FLAGS

While the historical origins of the pirate flag, or Jolly Roger as it was called, are unknown, I would suggest it be classified as another form of vanitas art.  The term 'Jolly Roger' goes back to at least 1724, when Charles Johnson's 'A General History of the Pyrates' was published.89  In it, Johnson cites two pirates specifically for naming their flag's the Jolly Roger: Bartholomew Roberts in 172190 and Francis Spriggs in 1723.91  Though not using the typical skull and crossbones design commonly associated with the Jolly Roger (that came later), they are the earliest examples of such flags, and incorporated the skull/skeleton motif, the sword, and the hourglass symbol.  These are also common symbols from vanitas art.  Certainly it can be argued that the pirates embraced the vanitas concept in their work, living on the edge as they did.  They were well aware that, if they didn't die in battle (which was certainly likely), they would be hung if captured.

Traditional Jolly Roger.

Roberts' first flag shows him and Death holding an hourglass..

Walter Kennedy's Jolly Roger ensign (which was identical to the flag of Jean Thomas Dulaien).

A pirate flag often called the "Jolly Roger." This flag is usually attributed to Blackbeard. Similar to flags reportedly flown by Edward Lowe and Francis Spriggs.

Emanuel Wynn's flag.

TRIBAL SKULL ART

Tribal skull art is a mixture of headhunting trophies and ancestor memorials, depending on the specific tribe.

DAYAK

The Dayak are the native people of Borneo, Indonesia.  The term refers loosely to over 200 ethnic subgroups which inhabit the island.  They are animist in their belief system, and were feared for their tradition of headhunting practices.92  Despite mass conversions to Christianity and Islam, and anti-headhunting legislation, the practice reemerged in the 1940's, 1960's, and 1990's.93

The Dayak, Ifugao, and Naga human skulls are headhunting trophies. The Asmat, Vanuatu, and Palawan human skulls are considered ancestor skulls.  Ancestor skulls are collected and venerated to remember deceased family members. The Ifugao collect bones of dead relatives, wrap them in tribal textiles, and store them in the rafters under their huts.  This is a very similar practice to the plastered skulls of Jericho.94  

There are also many similarities to the Aztec practices.  A skull could save a village from plague, produce rain, ward off evil spirits, or triple rice yields. Dayak people believed a man's spirit continued to inhabit his head after death. Surrounded by palm leaves, heads were offered food and cigarettes already lit for smoking so their spirits would forgive, forget, and feel welcome in their new home. New heads increased the prestige of the owner and impressed sweethearts; they were an initiation into manhood.97

ASMAT

The Asmat are an Indonesian cannibalistic tribe on the island,Papua. Known to use human skulls under their heads for pillows, they also have been reported to eat human brains mixed with sago worms straight from halved human skulls. The Asmat live in mangrove vegetation near the sea and rivers, on the south side of the western part of New Guinea. The Asmat, in addition to hunting for skulls, also worshipped them. Ancestor skulls are stripped of brains and eyes. Nasal passages are closed to prevent evil spirits from entering or exit the body. Asmat decorated skulls are displayed in sacred places inside Asmat domiciles96

The natural environment has been a major factor affecting the Asmat,as their culture and way of  life are heavily dependent on the rich natural resources found in their forests, rivers, and seas. The Asmat mainly subsist on starch from the sago palm (Metroxylon sagu), fish, forest game, and other items gathered from their forests and waters.  Materials for canoes, dwellings, and woodcarvings are also all gathered locally, and thus their culture and biodiversity are intertwined. Due to the daily flooding which occurs in many parts of their land, Asmat dwellings have typically been built two or more meters above the ground, raised on wooden posts. In some inland regions, the Asmat have lived in tree houses, sometimes as high as 25 meters from the ground. The Asmat have traditionally placed great emphasis on the veneration of ancestors, particularly those who were accomplished warriors. Asmat art, most noticeably elaborate, stylized wood carving, is designed to honour ancestors. Many Asmat artifacts have been collected by the world's museums, among the most notable of which are those found in the Michael C. Rockefeller Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam95,98.

TOLAI

The Tolai are the indigenous cannibal tribe of the Gazelle Peninsula and the Duke of York Islands of East New Britain in the New Guinea Islands region of Papua New Guinea. They are ethnically close kin to the peoples of adjacent New Ireland and are thought to have migrated to the Gazelle Peninsula in relatively recent times, displacing the Baining people who were driven westwards.96

NAGA

The Naga tribe of Nagaland attach animal horns to the skulls of their headhunted victims.99,100 Europeans were struck by the Naga practice of headhunting. Ursula Graham Bower described the Naga hills as the "paradise of headhunters."101 "Most villages had a skull house and each man in the village was expected to contribute to the collection. The taking of a head is symbolic of courage, and men who could not were dubbed as women or cows. There is nothing more glorious for a Naga than victory in battle by bringing home the severed head of an enemy."102 There was no indication of cannibalism among the Naga tribes. Headhunting has been eradicated since conversion to Christianity and the spread of modern education in the region.100

PALAWAN

The Palawan tribe, from the Philippines, decorate the skulls of their deceased ancestors with  shells.103

IATMUL

The Iatmul tribe, from Indonesia, hand paint and inlay shells into over-modeled skulls of deceased ancestors.104

CHIMBU

The Chimbu of the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea are best known for their elaborate skeletal body paint, which is intended to frighten their enemies.105

INDIVIDUAL MODERN ARTISTS

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo was the first artist of his era to show the sections of the skull.  He first began studying the human skull in the late 1400's (around 1489) after getting access to human cadavers from the hospital of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. He used innovative techniques, such as injecting molten wax, to locate and draw the cavities around the brain in the bones of the cranium106,107.

Some experts believe that the oldest anatomical model skull, recently discovered in Germany, may be the work of da Vinci.106

>DaVinci skull

Leonardo DaVinci skull

DaVinci skull<

Leonardo DaVinci skull

Paul Cézanne(1862-1918)

Pyramid of Skulls is a c. 1901 oil painting by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne. It depicts four human skulls stacked in a pyramidal configuration. Painted in a pale light against a dark background, Pyramid of Skulls is exceptional in the artist's oeuvre, for "in no other painting did Cézanne place his objects so close to the viewer."108 For art historian Françoise Cachin, "these bony visages all but assault the viewer, displaying an assertiveness very much at odds with the usual reserve of domestic still-life tableaux."109

Paul Cezanne Pyramid of Skulls

"Pyramid of Skulls" 1901.

Paul Cezanne three skulls

"Three Skulls" 1902-1906.

Paul Cezanne three skulls on a rug

"Three Skulls on a Rug" 1904.

Working in isolation in the last decade of his life, Cézanne frequently alluded to mortality in his letters: "For me, life has begun to be deathly monotonous"; "As for me, I'm old. I won't have time to express myself"; and "I might as well be dead." It is possible that the death of his mother on October 25, 1897—she had been a protective and supportive influence—accelerated his meditations on mortality, a subject which had obsessed the artist since the late 1870s, but did not find pictorial form for another twenty years.110 Cézanne's health started to deteriorate at the same time. The dramatic resignation to death informs a number of still life paintings he made between 1898 and 1905 of skulls. These works, some painted in oils and some with watercolor, are more subtle in meaning yet also more visually stark than the traditional approach to the theme of vanitas. 111

Cézanne's interest in the subject may have had roots in thoughts other than the contemplation of death. He could have been drawn to the skulls' volumetric forms, just as he was to those of fruits and vases, and he supposedly exclaimed "How beautiful a skull is to paint!" They also share physical similarities with his self-portrayals: "the skulls confront the viewer straight-on in a manner reminiscent of the artist's portraits." In both sets of works the mass of the cranium is emphasized: in the self-portraits the lower half of his face is obscured by his beard, while the skulls lack lower jaws altogether. In both series attention is focused on the round pate and eye sockets.112 There would have been further reason for the subject to interest Cézanne: skulls were prominent in the homes of Catholics, and Cézanne was a devout Catholic knowledgeable in ancient Christian texts. Human skulls had also long been common accessories in artists' studios. Indeed, the contents of Cézanne's studio were known to include "three skulls, (and) an ivory Christ on an ebony cross" near one another on the mantelpiece. 111

Joachim Gasquet, a friend of the artist, later recalled "on his last mornings he clarified this idea of death into a heap of bony brainpans to which the eyeholes added a bluish notion. I can still hear him reciting to me, one evening along the Arc River, the quatrain by Verlaine:

For in this lethargic world
Perpetually prey to old remorse
The only laughter to still make sense
Is that of death's heads.

Pyramid of Skulls was painted at Cézanne's studio in Aix, where he worked prior to his move into the new Les Lauves studio in September 1902. A visitor to the studio in July 1902 wrote: "In his bedroom, on a narrow table in the middle, I noticed three human skulls facing one another, three beautiful polished ivories. He spoke of a very good painted study that was somewhere in the attic. I wanted to see it." But Cézanne could not find the key to the garret, and blamed his maid for its misplacement.

A watercolor study, Three Skulls, at the Art Institute of Chicago, is similar in composition, though relatively more graceful in handling.113 The skull studies would serve as inspiration to 20th-century artists like Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. Today the skulls themselves remain in Cézanne's studio outside of Aix-en-Provence.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter who is perhaps best known for his 1907 painting 'The Kiss.'  Being a symbolist it is not surprising to find the skull present in some of his work, such as 'Death and Life ' in 1908 and 'Hope, II' 1907-1908.

'Death and Life ' (1908).

'Hope, II' (1907-1908).

José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913)

José Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican printmaker and engraver whose work was known for it's political and satirical nature.  Posada's best known works are his calaveras, which often assume various costumes, such as the Calavera de la Catrina, which was meant to satirize the life of the upper classes. Most of his imagery was meant to make a religious or satirical point. Since his death, however, his images have become associated with the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, the "Day of the Dead".114  

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

In 1885 or 1886 Van Gogh painted 'Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette'.  The painting is believed to have been a commentary on conservative academic practices of the time.  It may have also influenced a well known painting by M.C. Escher done in 1917.  There were two other paintings of skulls that followed, in 1887 and 1888.  Those were the only known paintings he ever did with the human skull as a motif (there was a sketch, however).115

Van Gogh Skull with Burning Cigarette

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1885-1886).

M.C. Escher Smoking Skull

Smoking Warning, M.C. Escher, 1917.

Skull (1887-1888).

Skull (1887-1888).

Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Diego Rivera was a prominent Mexican painter and the husband of Frida Kahlo. His large wall works in fresco helped establish the Mexican Mural Movement in Mexican art. Between 1922 and 1953, Rivera painted murals among others in Mexico City, Chapingo, Cuernavaca, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City.116 In what is perhaps his most well-known mural, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, he portrays his wife, Frida Kahlo, with la Calavera, in tribute to José Guadalupe Posada.117

Diego Rivera skull

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Skulls, traditional symbols of the memento mori in Western art history, fascinated Picasso throughout his life. Throughout World War II in occupied Paris, Picasso produced many skulls and still lifes that captured the tense and uncertain mood of the city. While they may represent allegories of human mortality in art, the immediacy of Picasso’s paintings and sculptures transform his skulls into poignant emblems of human vulnerability, death, and the senseless destruction of war. Picasso created 'Skull' in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Paris, which he may have modeled off of skulls kept in his studio as many artists did, such as Paul Cézanne who stored several on his mantelpiece. Cézanne created several paintings of skulls not only because of his interest in the contemplation of death, but also due to his fascination with their shapes and forms. 118

Along with Cézanne, Picasso must have drawn inspiration from Antonio de Pereda’s Vanitas (1660) paintings, in which the artist has rendered the bone structure of carefully crafted craniums in a meticulous manner. These skulls are but sober reminders of the body’s demise and universal symbols of the expiration of man’s existence and the transience of life, which Picasso has rendered in his own inimitable fashion.118

Picasso Bull skull and Fruit Pitcher

"Bull Skull and Fruit Pitcher" 1939.

Picasso Leeks Fish Head Skull and Pitcher

"Leeks, Fish Head, Skull and Pitcher" 1945

Picasso Skull and Leeks

"Skulls and Leeks" 1945

Picasso Black Jug and Skull

"Black Jug and Skull" 1946

Picasso Skull Sea Urchins and Lamp on a Table

"Skull, Sea Urchins, and Lamp on a Table" 1946

Picasso skull

"Skull" 1943

Salvador Dali(1904-1989)

The human skull made an appearance in many of Dali's paintings.  In fact, the spectre of death appeared to be one of the artist's obsessions.  Consider the following excerpt from the Mike Wallace interview with Dali in 1958.119

WALLACE: You write in your biography that death is beautiful. What's beautiful about death? Why is death beautiful?

DALI: This is one feeling everything is erotic in my opinion.

WALLACE: Everything is what?

DALI: Erotic.

WALLACE: Erotic?

DALI: ...is ugly, in the middle of everything ugly so arrive the feeling of death, everything becomes noble and sublime.

WALLACE: Oh, in other words, life is erotic and therefore ugly. Death is not erotic but sublime, therefore beautiful?

DALI: And beautiful. You know for instance, you, Micky Wallace, now is you a little good pay, a little handsome, but essentially, you becoming death, everybody tips his chapeau to you, you become fantastic man, everybody respects you a thousand times much better.

WALLACE: Is this by way of a suggestion?

DALI: Exactly. See you make one strip tease, you become ugly in one second.

WALLACE: Oh, I agree, I agree. Tell me this, what do you think will happen to you when you die?

DALI: myself not believe in my death.

WALLACE: You will not die?

DALI: No, no believe in general in death but in the death of Dali absolutely not. Believe in my death becoming very -- almost impossible.

WALLACE: You fear death?

DALI: Yes.

WALLACE: Death is beautiful but you fear death?

DALI: Exactly......because Dali is contradictory and paradoxical man.

Another recurring theme in Dali's painting was his dead brother.  When he was five years old, the artist was taken to his brother's grave and told by his parents that he was his brother's reincarnation.120  This thought seemed to haunt him throughout his life.  When his mother died in 1921 (Dali was only 16 at the time), he was devastated, saying her death "was the greatest blow I had experienced in my life."121

In 1931, Dali painted perhaps his most famous work, 'The Persistence of Memory.'  The idea of watches melting always struck me as being in defiance of time.  In that sense, the image is yet another statement against death by the artist.122

His wifes death seemed to be more than he could take.  He retreated to the castle where her grave was located.  He attempted to dehydrate himself to enter into a state of suspended animation.123

The famous photograph of women posed in the shape of a skull by Dali has gone on to influence many other artists, and has become something of a cultural icon in it's own right.  More info on that is available here

Dali Atavism at Twilight

Atavism at Twilight, circa 1934

Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano

Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano, 1934

Dali Ballerina in a Death's Head

Ballerina in a Death's Head, 1939

Salvador Dali Death Outside the Head

Death Outside the Head/Paul Eluard, circa 1933

Salvador Dali Exquisite Cadaver

Exquisite Cadaver, 1935

Salvador Dali Campaign Against Venereal Disease

For the Campaign Against Venereal Disease, 1942

Salvador Dali Geological Destiny

Geological Destiny, 1933

Salvador Dali Skull

Skull with Its Lyric Appendage Leaning on a Night Table which Should Have the Exact Temperature of a Cardinal's Nest, 1934

Salvador Dali The Horseman of Death

The Horseman of Death, 1935

Salvador Dali The Skull of Zurbarán

The Skull of Zurbarán, 1956

Salvador Dali Visage of War

Visage of War, 1940

Salvador Dali Women forming a skull

Women Forming a Skull

Frida Kahlo(1907-1954)

While Frida Kahlo only incorporated the skull into a couple of her paintings (the majority were self-portraits), she has come to be associated with Day of the Dead imagery, and there is no shortage of art today that portrays her this way.

Frida Kahlo Without Hope

Frida Kahlo, Without Hope, 1945

Frida Kahlo Girl With Death Mask

Frida Kahlo, Girl With Death Mask She Plays Alone, 1938

Frida Kahlo Skull

Image of Frida for Day of the Dead at the Museo Frida Kahlo

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

After he was shot and critically injured in 1968, Warhol became even more obsessed with the theme of death than he had been previously. The skull, a traditional symbol of mortality, is repeated six times, with the impenetrable darkness of the hollow eye sockets echoed in each image. The shadow cast by the skull resembles a baby’s profile, although whether this was intentional is unknown as Warhol did not take the photograph that the screenprint is based on. It seems unlikely, however, that this effective combination of both life and death would escape Warhol’s sharp gaze. In contrast to the sinister subject, the colours are vibrant. Perhaps Warhol is attempting to acknowledge that death is not something to be feared but instead, should be accepted as part of life.124

Andy Warhol Skull

ANDY WARHOL Philip's Skull (black), 1985 Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas 40 x 40 inches (101.6 x 101.6 cm)

Andy Warhol Skull

Andy Warhol Self Portrait with Skull, 1978

Andy Warhol Skull

Andy Warhol, Skull, 1976

Andy Warhol's Philip's Skull paintings were completed in 1985, using silkscreens made from CAT-scan films of the skull of Philip Niarchos, who commissioned the artist to paint his portrait.Warhol's decision to use the CAT scans as a motif of portraiture is extremely rich in connotation. While Philip Niarchos had been a friend of the artist for many years, he also epitomized for Warhol the upper crust of the international jet set, the clientele he had sought since the 1970s for his financially lucrative society portraits. Therefore, the CAT-scan paintings are not only references to the tradition of memento mori painting, but also to his own production of the vanity portraits of high society. In addition, the CAT-scan images refer back to the large ensemble of Skull Paintings and his many self-portraits with skulls that Warhol had painted nearly a decade before.125

Of course, all these permutations of the image of the skull figure prominently in the themes of death and disaster present in Warhol's entire body of work beginning in the early 1960s, including his portraits of movie stars and celebrities viewed as commodities and as articles of mass consumption. The paintings of Philip's Skull are especially relevant to this theme of fame-as-death, one of the great motifs in Warhol's career.125

Andy Warhol Skull
Andy Warhol Skull
Andy Warhol Skull

Like nearly all of Warhol's work, the Philip's Skull paintings have their root in photography, since most of his silkscreens were made from photographs, many of them borrowed from other sources. The same is true, of the medical CAT scans of Niarchos' cranium and brain. But from these dry, borrowed, or even morose sources, Warhol creates works of art full of resonance, from the connotations of the dark side of human existence, to the wildly brilliant display of painting and color, celebrity and extravagance.125

H. R. Giger (1940-2014)

Swiss surrealist painter and sculptor H. R. Giger was born in 1940 in Chur.  He is perhaps most widely known for his set design work in the Alien movie series, which won him an Oscar in 1980.  He also did many album covers, published numerous books of his work (including the Necronomicon books), illustrated magazines, created his own Giger-esque bar,128 and has a permanent museum in his honor.  His passing in 2014 was a great loss.  His painting 'Mirror Image' is easily near the top of my list of favorites, and is one of many of his works that prominently featured the human skull within it.126,127

The influence of both Hindu and Buddhist art can be seen in his Li I and Li II paintings from 1974, in which the skull crown can be spotted.  A possible nod to Aztec tzompantli's is also present in images such as his 'Landscape XIX' and 'Landscape XVII', where various skulls are embedded in the wall.

H.R.Giger Li I 1974

Li I, 1974

H.R. Giger Landscape XIX

Landscape XIX

H.R. Giger, Mirror Image

Mirror Image

H.R. Giger, Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley

H.R. Giger, Li II, 1974

Li II, 1974

Alexander McQueen(1969-2010)

British fashion designer Alexander McQueen is credited with popularizing a fashion trend with stylized skulls which still continues today.  Begining with scarves and handbags, and later jewelry, he used the skull extensively in his work.  Today, largely thanks to his influence, the skull is found in every corner of the fashion world.129,130

Alexander McQueen Skull Clutch
Alexander McQueen Skull Scarf
Alexander McQueen Skull Ring
Alexander McQueen Skull Shoes
Alexander McQueen Skull Dress
Alexander McQueen with Skull

Damien Hirst

Controversial English artist Damien Hirst, a member of England's Young British Artists,131 has often made death a central theme in his art.133  Extravagance and wealth typically play a role as well, though one might be hard pressed to classify his work as vanitas.  He became famous for a series of artworks in which dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) are preserved—sometimes having been dissected—in formaldehyde. 132

He is also well known for his piece 'For the Love of God', which consists of a platinum cast of an 18th-century human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds, including a pear-shaped pink diamond located in the forehead that is known as the Skull Star Diamond. Hirst stated the idea for the work came from an Aztec turquoise skull at the British Museum.  It can be classified as a memento mori and was sold for 50 million pounds.134

In his 67 foot tall bronze and stainless steel sculpture entitled Verity, Hirst depicts a pregnant woman holding a sword aloft, carrying the scales of justice, and standing atop a pile of law books.  She is split down the middle, revealing her inner anatomy, including unborn child.  At the time it was erected it was the tallest staue in England.135

For the Love of God

For the Love of God by Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst Cow

Cow by Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst Shark

Shark by Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst Verity

Verity by Damien Hirst

Mark Ryden

Artist Mark Ryden, dubbed "the god-father of pop surrealism" by Interview Magazine,136 has incorporated the skull and skeleton into many of his compositions, sometimes prominently and sometimes in a more subtle fashion.  In either case, it is clear that it has been and continues to be an influence on him, and both real skulls and models can be seen scattered throughout his studio.  As noted by Carlo McCormick in his 2001 article "At Play in the Slaughterhouse of American Pop":137

"Much like the momento mori genre in which still lifes would be arranged in tableaus that would mimic the shape of a skull, Ryden's pastoral is indeed a nature morte infused with the bitter-sweet reminder of how precious, ephemeral and fleeting youth and existence really is. This is obviously most evident in the skulls, skeletons and Christian religious imagery..."

In 'The Pumpkin President', two children are seen playing in a giant horse skull.  In 'The Parlor' a dapper top-hat wearing skeleton stands by with tarot card in hand, perhaps a nod to the well-known M.C. Escher print.  In 'The Meat Train' a young boy holds a skull-topped scepter in one hand, perhaps influenced by the Chitipati or Khatvanga.

Mark Ryden in his studio

Mark Ryden in his studio.

Mark Ryden The Pumpkin President

The Pumpkin President by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden The Parlor

The Parlor by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden The Meat Train

The Meat Train by Mark Ryden.

Mark Ryden Uncle Black

Uncle Black by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden The Magic Circus

The Magic Circus by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden The Birth

The Birth by Mark Ryden.

Mark Ryden Swap Meet Man

Swap Meet Man by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden Slayer

Slayer by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden Meat Magi

Meat Magi by Mark Ryden.

Mark Ryden Corkey Ascending to the Heavens

Corkey Ascending to the Heavens by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden Cone of Memory

Cone of Memory by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden A Dog Named Jesus

A Dog Named Jesus by Mark Ryden.

Mark Ryden 40

40 by Mark Ryden

Mark Ryden Reader

Reader by Mark Ryden

Laurie Lipton

Laurie Lipton is one of the most talented living artists producing skull-themed art today.  Her work is produced in charcoal and pencil on enormous sheets of paper, capturing every tiny detail with painstaking draftsman-like precision.  There is a definite Day of the Dead influence visible in her art, and a fascination with technology, machinery and death.  Her La Catrina drawing is a definite tip of the hat to José Guadalupe Posada.  Our full blog entry on Laurie can be found here.

Laurie Lipton Catrina

La Catrina.

Laurie Lipton Senorita Muerte

Senorita Muerte

Laurie Lipton The Last Embrace

The Last Embrace

Laurie Lipton Umpteenth Anniversary

The Umpteenth Anniversary.

Laurie Lipton Bone China

Bone China

Jessica Joslin

Jessica Joslin has been creating beautiful skeletal animal assemblages since 1992, each one with it's own unique name.  They are part museum specimen and part fairytale, reminiscent of Victorian wunderkammer, preserved specimens and the Mutter Museum, as well as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and Jan Svankmeijer.  Our full blog entry on Jessica can be found here.

Jessica Joslin Laszlo

Lazlo.

Jessica Joslin Lazarus

Lazarus

Jessica Joslin

Kris Kuksi

Artist Kris Kuksi creates elaborate and intricately detailed assemblages utilizing toys and models, among many other parts.  The final result might best be described as a modern take on religious/mythological themes, influenced by baroque and rococco style.  The skull and skeleton play a prominent role in many of his installations.  Director Guillermo del Toro owns some of his work.138 Our full blog entry on Kris Kuksi can be found here.

Kris Kuksi skull
Kris Kuksi skull
Kris Kuksi skull
Kris Kuksi skull
Kris Kuksi skull

Conclusion

This really only scratches the surface as far as a history of skull art is concerned. The Aztec influence has been perhaps the greatest. You can find more info on the symbolism of skull art here, and a full list of skull-related links here. Don't forget to check our blog as well. It is updated frequently with new skull art. I believe we are living at a point in time when skull-themed art is at it's most popular.

This page is available for download as a pdf file on Academia.edu.

Citations

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