The Putto with the Death's Head

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<ul><li><p>The Putto with the Death's HeadAuthor(s): Horst W. JansonSource: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep., 1937), pp. 423-449Published by: College Art AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3045691 .Accessed: 11/06/2014 10:28</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.</p><p> .</p><p>College Art Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The ArtBulletin.</p><p>http://www.jstor.org </p><p>This content downloaded from 62.122.72.78 on Wed, 11 Jun 2014 10:28:55 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=caahttp://www.jstor.org/stable/3045691?origin=JSTOR-pdfhttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsphttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>THE PUTTO WITH THE DEATH'S HEAD' </p><p>By HORST W. JANSON </p><p>* EATH in the numerous allegories conceived by the imagina- tion of fifteenth and sixteenth century artists assumes its </p><p>strangest, if not its most important, form in the putto with </p><p>^^ i l the death's head. Unlike others, it was not founded on the literary or pictorial traditions of earlier periods. Conse- quently, it retained, throughout its existence, a flexibility that enabled it to be a focal point for all those conflicting notions of death which the Renaissance developed out of the heritage of the late Middle Ages. The putto with the skull had so </p><p>many affiliations with other allegories of the same general import that, in order to clarify its unique position, its history </p><p>may best begin with a short survey of the earlier representations of death in western art. Death, from its very nature, seems to have suggested to the artist two widely divergent </p><p>alternatives. It could be regarded either as a physical state, illustrated by a representation of a </p><p>corpse; or as a metaphysical event. In the latter case there would be shown the supernatural being causing death or performing some function in connection with the soul of the deceased. These two aspects, though frequently coexisting, have always been kept strictly apart, except in the late mediaeval "animated corpse" type where both appear united. The metaphysical aspect seems by far the older. Ancient Egyptian art swarms with gods of the dead; to classic Greece death appeared as Thanatos, a youthful genius, and as a symbol of death the corpse was unknown. It was in Egypt that the latter made its earliest appearance, significantly enough, as a symbol not of religion but of utter hedonism. On festive occasions, small statues of dried- out mummies were placed on the dining tables, reminding the guests of their future and thus </p><p>inducing them to take full advantage of the present.2 When the Romans took over this usage, they replaced the mummy with the skeleton when representing man's corporeal state after death.3 </p><p>Soon, however, skeletons achieved a new significance. They were taken to be the Larvae, the images of the deceased living in the lower world. As such they naturally could move and even talk, abilities that are depicted on the cups of Boscoreale. </p><p>The growing concern of late antiquity with the after-life, a concern particularly evident in </p><p>* Beginning Initial-Lyons, 1569. Initial "D." procured the photographs used for Figs. i , 14, and 22. </p><p>i. This paper has grown out of an assignment in the 2. One of these mummies is preserved in the collection course "History of Drawing and Engraving" conducted by of F. W. von Bissing and published by the owner in Zeit- Prof. Paul J. Sachs at Harvard University; it was presented, schrift fur Agyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, I (I9I2), in preliminary form, at the meeting of the Harvard-Prince- p. 63. Cf. Frederick Parkes Weber, Aspects of Death and ton Fine Arts Club in Princeton, N.J., January 30, 1937. I Correlated Aspects of Life, London, 1918, pp. 28 if. want to acknowledge my gratitude to Prof. Erwin Panofsky 3. Cf. Otto Brendel, "Untersuchungen zur Allegorie des of Princeton, N.J., for many valuable suggestions; to Prof. Pompejanischen Totenkopf-Mosaiks," Mitteilungen des Deut- Chandler R. Post of Harvard University for generous help schen Archiologischen Instituts, Rdmische Abteilung, XLIX and advice; to Dr. Lieselotte Moeller of Hamburg for having (1934), pp. 74-97. </p><p>THE PUTTO WITH THE DEATH'S HEAD' </p><p>By HORST W. JANSON </p><p>* EATH in the numerous allegories conceived by the imagina- tion of fifteenth and sixteenth century artists assumes its </p><p>strangest, if not its most important, form in the putto with </p><p>^^ i l the death's head. Unlike others, it was not founded on the literary or pictorial traditions of earlier periods. Conse- quently, it retained, throughout its existence, a flexibility that enabled it to be a focal point for all those conflicting notions of death which the Renaissance developed out of the heritage of the late Middle Ages. The putto with the skull had so </p><p>many affiliations with other allegories of the same general import that, in order to clarify its unique position, its history </p><p>may best begin with a short survey of the earlier representations of death in western art. Death, from its very nature, seems to have suggested to the artist two widely divergent </p><p>alternatives. It could be regarded either as a physical state, illustrated by a representation of a </p><p>corpse; or as a metaphysical event. In the latter case there would be shown the supernatural being causing death or performing some function in connection with the soul of the deceased. These two aspects, though frequently coexisting, have always been kept strictly apart, except in the late mediaeval "animated corpse" type where both appear united. The metaphysical aspect seems by far the older. Ancient Egyptian art swarms with gods of the dead; to classic Greece death appeared as Thanatos, a youthful genius, and as a symbol of death the corpse was unknown. It was in Egypt that the latter made its earliest appearance, significantly enough, as a symbol not of religion but of utter hedonism. On festive occasions, small statues of dried- out mummies were placed on the dining tables, reminding the guests of their future and thus </p><p>inducing them to take full advantage of the present.2 When the Romans took over this usage, they replaced the mummy with the skeleton when representing man's corporeal state after death.3 </p><p>Soon, however, skeletons achieved a new significance. They were taken to be the Larvae, the images of the deceased living in the lower world. As such they naturally could move and even talk, abilities that are depicted on the cups of Boscoreale. </p><p>The growing concern of late antiquity with the after-life, a concern particularly evident in </p><p>* Beginning Initial-Lyons, 1569. Initial "D." procured the photographs used for Figs. i , 14, and 22. </p><p>i. This paper has grown out of an assignment in the 2. One of these mummies is preserved in the collection course "History of Drawing and Engraving" conducted by of F. W. von Bissing and published by the owner in Zeit- Prof. Paul J. Sachs at Harvard University; it was presented, schrift fur Agyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, I (I9I2), in preliminary form, at the meeting of the Harvard-Prince- p. 63. Cf. Frederick Parkes Weber, Aspects of Death and ton Fine Arts Club in Princeton, N.J., January 30, 1937. I Correlated Aspects of Life, London, 1918, pp. 28 if. want to acknowledge my gratitude to Prof. Erwin Panofsky 3. Cf. Otto Brendel, "Untersuchungen zur Allegorie des of Princeton, N.J., for many valuable suggestions; to Prof. Pompejanischen Totenkopf-Mosaiks," Mitteilungen des Deut- Chandler R. Post of Harvard University for generous help schen Archiologischen Instituts, Rdmische Abteilung, XLIX and advice; to Dr. Lieselotte Moeller of Hamburg for having (1934), pp. 74-97. </p><p>This content downloaded from 62.122.72.78 on Wed, 11 Jun 2014 10:28:55 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p>http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p></li><li><p>THE ART BULLETIN THE ART BULLETIN </p><p>the cult of Psyche, created another type: the skeleton was combined with the butterfly, the well- known symbol of the soul, this striking formula showing that man's life did not end with the </p><p>decay of the body. These representations seem to have occurred most frequently on gems and other objects closely attached to their owners, possibly as amulets. Since the head had always been regarded as the most important part of the human body, an attitude revealed by the fre- </p><p>quent figurative use of caput in antiquity to designate importance, the skull became the most </p><p>important part of the skeleton and was often used alone, as pars pro toto. It was not the skull alone, however, that possessed this mortuary significance: Deonna4 has </p><p>shown that the Dionysiac mask could have the same meaning; that the putti playing with masks on many Dionysiac sarcophagi symbolize the Dionysiac paradise of eternal inebriation, whereas the mask stands for death. From the evidence of these examples Deonna has proved that a group of sepulchral reliefs, previously interpreted as representations of poets with masks as attributes of their profession, shows deceased individuals pondering over a symbol of death </p><p>(Fig. 8).5 In some instances, this meaning has been made even more explicit by substituting for the mask the skull with the butterfly superimposed.6 These melancholy figures, with their </p><p>quietly contemplative attitude toward a symbol of the hereafter, have a surprisingly modern air which will bear comparison with similar creations of the Renaissance. However, their medita- tion is not principally concerned with death as such, but, rather, with some definite conception of the next world. The mask suggests the Dionysiac after-life; the skull, invariably accom- </p><p>panied by the butterfly, suggests that the soul survives in immaterial form the death of the body. With the rise of Christianity this tradition died out almost completely. Early Christian </p><p>and Byzantine art represented death only as defeated by Christ or the Christian Virtues; for this purpose death was either identified with the devil7 or personified by a type derived from the Greek Thanatos.8 The Roman type of skeleton survived in two usages only: in the grave of Adam beneath the cross of the crucified Christ; and in the illustrations of the Vision of Ezekiel (XXXVII, i-8), where, at the command of God, the prophet resurrects the dead from their graves.9 In both instances, however, the gruesome realism of Roman art was carefully avoided in order not to conflict with the idea of resurrection implied in the representations. The illustrations of Ezekiel were rare and their influence negligible, but, the grave of Adam occurred with increasing frequency from the seventh century on. Ferdinand Piper,?0 tracing the literary and theological history of the motif, has proved it to be a local Jewish legend of </p><p>pre-Christian origin known to many Early Christian authors. Though most of these denied that Adam was actually buried on Mount Golgotha, they repeated the legend because of its </p><p>opportune symbolic implications, as did, for example, St. Jerome. In the East, where the </p><p>legend was formally accepted, Adam's grave became a standard feature of Byzantine Cruci- fixions.x" The Roman Church condemned it officially, but the testimony of St. Jerome as well as the influence of Byzantine art, helped to keep its memory alive. From the twelfth century </p><p>4. Revue arche'ologique, III, 5e serie (1916), pp. 74-97. Io. Adams Grab auf Golgotha, Evangelischer Kalender, </p><p>5. Reproduced in Athenische Mitteilungen (1901), pp. Jahrbuch fur s86s, Berlin, ed. Ferdinand Piper, pp. 17-29. </p><p>132-i33. ii. I am indebted to Prof. Charles R. Morey of Prince- </p><p>6. Cf. Roscher, Lexicon, s.v. Psyche, p. 3235. ton for reference to the earliest representation, a bronze-gilt </p><p>7. Derived from Christ's Descent into Limbo. Cf. Adele reliquary cross of ca. 600 A.D. in the Museo Cristiano, nos. </p><p>Reuter, Beitrige zu einer Ikonographie des Todes, Leipzig, 35 and 38, described and reproduced by E. S. King in Atti </p><p>1912, pp. I4 if. della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, serie III, </p><p>8. Cf. the Topography of Kosmas Indikopleustes, Reuter, Memorie II (1928), pp. 193-205. That this cross, as Mr. </p><p>op. Cit., p. 7. King suggests, belongs to a group made in Palestine for </p><p>9. Idem, pp. 45 ff., and Rudolf Helm, Skelett- und To- pilgrims to the Holy Land, conforms very well to the origin </p><p>desdarstellungen bis zum Auftreten der Totentanze, Strass- of the legend as traced by Piper, op. cit. </p><p>bourg, 1928, p. 48. </p><p>the cult of Psyche, created another type: the skeleton was combined with the butterfly, the well- known symbol of the soul, this striking formula showing that man's life did not end with the </p><p>decay of the body. These representations seem to have occurred most frequently on gems and other objects closely attached to their owners, possibly as amulets. Since the head had always been regarded as the most important part of the human body, an attitude revealed by the fre- </p><p>quent figurative use of caput in antiquity to designate importance, the skull became the most </p><p>important part of the skeleton and was often used alone, as pars pro toto. It was not the skull alone, however, that possessed this mortuary significance: Deonna4 has </p><p>shown that the Dionysiac mask could have the same meaning; that the putti playing with masks on many Dionysiac sarcophagi symbolize the Dionysiac paradise of eternal inebriation, whereas the mask stands for death. From the evidence of these examples Deonna has proved that a group of sepulchral reliefs, previously interpreted as representations of poets with masks as attributes of their profession, shows deceased individuals pondering over a symbol of death </p><p>(Fig. 8).5 In some instances, this meaning has been made even more explicit by substituting for the mask the skull with the butterfly superimposed.6 These melancholy figures, with their </p><p>quietly contemplative attitude toward a symbol of the hereafter, have a surprisingly modern air which will bear comparison with similar creations of the Renaissance. However, their medita- tion is not principally concerned with death as such, but, rather, with some definite conception of the next world. The mask suggests the Dionysiac after-life; the skull, invariably accom- </p><p>panied by the butterfly, suggests that the soul survives in immaterial form the death of the body. With the rise of Christianity this tradition died out almost completely. Early Christian </p><p>and Byzantine art represented death only as defeated by Christ or the Christian Virtue...</p></li></ul>