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Creepy art

October 29th, 2018

English, Mourning Ribbon Slide: Skull and Crossbones on Plaited Hair, late 17th century. Gold, enamel, hair, gems, rock crystal. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Halloween is almost here. To get into the ghostly spirit, we’re spotlighting works in the AGO Collection that feature skulls, coffins and other spine-chilling symbols for a delightfully morbid visit to the AGO.

Can you think of a more bluntly chilling phrase than memento mori – Latin for “remember death”? When it comes to art, this spooky genre was popular throughout European history, especially in the 1600s. Associated with Christianity, memento mori art reminds religious followers of a heavenly or hellish eternity. At the time, Europe was a continent familiar with death – with wide-spread disease, war and famine and a life expectancy of under 40.

At the AGO, we have a wide-ranging collection of memento mori artworks. Below we highlight a few.

What better way to remember mortality than with a skull carving? In the early 1500s, this ivory bead would have been at the end of a rosary. Take a close look at the incredible details the artist used to create the worms and lizards crawling in and out of the skull’s cavities. Spooky!

ivory sculpture of skull and face.

French (Northern) or Dutch (Southern), Rosary Pendant: Death Mask and Skull Eaten by Worms and Lizards, 1500-1525. Ivory, polychrome, Overall: 7 x 3.4 x 2.8 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Some memento mori artworks were a bit larger, intended for display in the home. This sculpture of a carefree youth lounging on a skull pillow reminds us of life’s bookends.

German (Augsburg or Munich), Allegory of Youth and Death, early 17th century. Ivory, Overall (with base): 7.3 x 22.6 x 9.4 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In Britain in the 1600s, some mourners wore ribbon slide pendants like these around their necks or wrists. Look closely at this one and you’ll see that beneath the skull and crossbones is a braid of hair from the deceased. A tad morbid? Perhaps, but remember, these objects come from an era without photography. Mementoes like these helped people grieve and remember their loved ones.

English, Mourning Ribbon Slide: Skull and Crossbones on Plaited Hair, late 17th century. Gold, enamel, hair, gems, rock crystal. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Here’s another accessory for the well-dressed mourner. This chickpea-sized skull pendant opens to reveal a coffin and an exquisitely detailed skeleton, less than one centimetre long.

sculpture of a skull pendant with entombed skeleton

English or Dutch, Skull Pendant with Entombed Skeleton, 17th century. Gold, enamel, diamonds, Open (including loop): 1.4 × 1.2 × 3 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario

This ivory plaque shows a popular theme called The Dance of Death (also referred to as the Danse Macabre). The Dance of Death was an artistic genre that emphasized mortality as a great unifier. The theme appears in murals, poetry, woodcut prints and music.

ivory sculpture of skeletons dancing

Circle of Leonhard Kern, The Dance of Death, mid-17th century. Ivory, Overall: 10.2 x 8.9 x 2.5 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario

All the works above are now on view and included in General Admission. See these spooky works on Level 1 in the Thomson Collection (Galleries 107–114). Just before you reach the scissor stairs, turn left and look for a dark gallery glowing with ivory and metal objects from the Middle Ages. Then, spot a small cabinet towards the back. (Don’t be afraid to let your best werewolf howl echo through the galleries when you find it.)

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