in visual arts the skull has always metaphorically personified the death, but while today it is only a commercial symbol of emptiness, in the past it was instead a tremendous warning to the fleetingness of life.
symbol par excellence of vanitas in the middle ages these subjects are widespread and include the memento mori, the homo bulla, the et in arcadia ego, the allegory of death and the three ages of man, which are closely related to ars moriendi , the dance of death, the triumph of death, the death and the girl, the legend of the three living and three dead.
the skull had to remember what the absolute truth of man was: that of white, grinning bones, unmade of his rotten flesh. spoiled the final of the last season to the living, reminding them how frivolous was every material good, how short every exterior beauty was and how much every accumulated glory in life was useless.
in the end, always in a grinning skull would have been involved.
it was difficult times those of the middle ages, in which death was so present in everyday life that everyone was always conscious of bringing one within himself as the fruit the stone.they all lived their lives with the certainty of leaving it early and were quick to consume such a short, but very intense life. in this context of instability the christian religion was able to make the skull the perfect symbol of terror for the afterlife and for eternal damnation: the believers, harassed by the afterlife, were called to atone for their sins to account to God for a right existence.
but the skull had not only a negative meaning, it could also be read as a hymn to life: unlike animals that have no awareness of death, the human being knows that he has an expiration date and that life must be glorified, accumulating experiences and wisdom, because only those who have lived a lot are able to understand life (and death) and its teaching.
and today? what remains of all this?
the skull is still able to get its warning to those who fix its empty orbits or turned into a paperweight: an obsolete object of some aesthetic and furnishing usefulness?
life today is much longer than in the middle ages and all in all, in terms of time, can be defined as a satisfying experience. a long life, yes, but lived less intensely; lived even more superficially perhaps. in this context the skull does not frighten anymore, also because it is overcome by other more crude and violent images propagated by the media and become part of our daily life.
the skull has been dethroned by its universal role, becoming a romantic vision of life symbol, such as a record player or an alphabet primer, which affects only a niche of people with a marked sensitivity or who has lived other times.
its meaning is still universally recognized (on the danger signs, on the labels of certain supermarket products …) but it is so tacky, to appear as banal and empty as the multinational corporation logo.
these are our times, made of mere appearance, of extreme consumerism and moral inadequacy; an empty existence in which death is often the simple solution to all the problems of life rather than the only reason to live it fully.