Death and its symbols

The concept of death in literature and art: a reflection on the representation of death through the centuries

In this article, I invite you to explore representations of death in history, literature and art. This universal theme has been dealt with by authors and artists in different eras, and has evolved over time. 

Death in medieval and Renaissance literature

The Middle Ages, a period of European history stretching from the 5th to the 15th century, was marked by the strong influence of the Christian religion. In the literature of this period, death is often depicted as an inevitable stage in man’s life, leading to resurrection and eternal life.

One of the most famous works dealing with death in the Middle Ages is Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. This literary work recounts the poet’s journey to the afterlife, where he passes through Hell, Purgatory and finally Paradise. Death is presented as divine punishment for sins committed in life.

During the Renaissance, a period of artistic and intellectual renewal that followed the Middle Ages, the representation of death evolved. Some authors began to question religious dogma, developing a more humanist vision of life and death. In François Rabelais’ “Gargantua”, for example, death is approached in a lighter, more humorous way.

Death in 17th and 18th century literature

In the 17th century, the history of French literature was marked by the classicist movement, which sought to impose strict rules and draw inspiration from Antiquity. In this context, the depiction of death continued to evolve.

In the classical tragedies of Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille, death is often presented as a fatal outcome to dramatic conflicts. The heroes of these authors’ works are often faced with moral dilemmas that lead to their downfall. In Racine’s “Phèdre”, for example, the eponymous heroine commits suicide after confessing her incestuous love for her stepson.

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In the 18th century, the Enlightenment sought to spread the ideas of progress and reason throughout Europe. In the literature of this period, death is often approached in a more rational and critical way. In Voltaire’s “Dictionnaire philosophique”, for example, death is presented as a natural end to life, with no religious or moral connotations.

Death in painting and sculpture

The theme of death has also been widely addressed in the visual arts, notably in painting and sculpture. In Christian art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, death is often depicted in the form of a skeletal figure, known as the “Danse macabre”. This representation symbolizes the equality of all men in the face of death, regardless of social rank or wealth.

Another example of the representation of death in painting is Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”, a fresco created at the end of the Renaissance. In this imposing work, the dead are resurrected to be judged by Christ. The elect ascend to Paradise, while the damned are cast into Hell.

Death in 19th-century art and literature

The 19th century was marked by numerous political and social upheavals, as well as the emergence of new artistic and literary trends. The representation of death evolved once again, both in literature and in art.

In the works of the Romantic movement, death is often theatrically and passionately staged, as in Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. Romantic authors saw death as a form of rebellion against social conventions and an affirmation of their individuality.

In 19th-century painting, the theme of death is also very present. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault approached death through scenes of battle or shipwreck, as in the famous painting “The Raft of the Medusa”. These works show the fragility of human life in the face of the forces of nature and war.

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Death in 19th-century literary movements

In the 19th century, the representation of death in French literature diversified through various literary movements. Romanticism, Realism and Symbolism were just some of the literary movements that approached the theme of death in different ways.

Romanticism, which favors the expression of emotions and the valorization of the individual, treats death as a means of escaping the constraints of the real world or of sublimating love. For example, in Alphonse de Lamartine’s “Lamartine”, death is presented as a loving reunion with the beloved departed.

Realism, on the other hand, seeks to depict reality objectively and without embellishment. Death is portrayed as an inescapable part of everyday life, often linked to working conditions or social misery. Gustave Flaubert, in “Madame Bovary”, deals with the death of Emma Bovary, who commits suicide by poisoning after failing to find happiness in her married life and extramarital affairs.

Finally, symbolism is characterized by a search for the absolute and a quest for transcendence. Death is often associated with mystical symbols and images, as in Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre”, where the poet evokes the “starry night” and the “natal cradle” to suggest death and rebirth.

Death in literature and art from the 20th century to the present day

In the 20th century, the representation of death continues to evolve and diversify. The literature and art of the last century were marked by the two world wars, which profoundly changed the way authors and artists approached this theme.

In the literature of this period, death is often shown as a tragic consequence of armed conflict. In Henri Barbusse’s “Le Feu”, for example, soldiers experience the horror of war on a daily basis, and are confronted with the death of their comrades.

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Art of the 20th and early 21st centuries also explores new ways of representing death, notably through the contemporary art movement. Artists such as Damien Hirst and Andres Serrano approach death in provocative and shocking ways, questioning the taboos and conventions associated with the subject.

Death in modern and contemporary art

Modern and contemporary art also saw a diversification of representations of death. Works of art from these periods explore new aesthetic and conceptual approaches to this universal theme.

In the early 20th century, artists of the Expressionist movement, such as Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch, depicted death through distorted images and vivid colors, expressing their anguish at the finitude of life. Schiele’s painting “Death and the Young Girl” illustrates the macabre embrace between a young woman and a skeleton, symbolizing the inevitability of death.

The Surrealists, for their part, explored the imaginary and the irrational in their approach to death. Salvador Dalí’s works, such as “Le Sommeil”, depict dreamlike, enigmatic scenes in which death is suggested in subtle, disconcerting ways.

In contemporary art, death is often approached in a provocative manner or using unusual materials. Damien Hirst’s “Memento Mori”, consisting of a human skull covered in diamonds, questions our relationship with death and the vanity of material possessions.

Death, a universal theme in constant evolution

Over the centuries, the representation of death in literature and art has evolved and diversified, reflecting the concerns and questions of different eras. From the Middle Ages to the present day, authors and artists have explored this universal theme from a variety of angles, offering a mirror of the mentalities and societies that inspired them.

The diversity of artistic and literary approaches to death testifies to the importance of this subject in the collective imagination. Death is an inescapable fact of human existence, and the works of art and literary texts that depict it help us to better understand our relationship with finitude and our mortal condition.

Melissa T, a journalist and web writer, is the curious mind behind "Death Chronicles," an original blog that approaches death in a unique and unconventional way. Driven by a passion for the subject since her youth, she launched this blog to demystify death, providing accurate information with a touch of humor and irreverence. Melissa explores all aspects of death, from historical and cultural perspectives to medical advancements, while also addressing sensitive topics such as grief and funeral rituals. Her sensitive and empathetic approach gives a voice to those often forgotten in the narrative of death, and "Death Chronicles" has become an invaluable resource for those seeking to understand and celebrate the inevitable end of our earthly journey.

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