The Black Hart

Death and the Maiden

27 March 2021
an old painting showing a woman naked from the waist up and crying while a skeletal form holds her from behind with its mouth close to her face.

Death and the Maiden by Hans Baldung Grien c1518-20

'Death and the Maiden' is the name given to an artistic motif that was very popular in European Renaissance art. It usually contains the image of a young woman being seduced or approached by death, often shown as a skeleton or cadaver. It is thought of as another iteration of the 'Dance of Death' motif, but I think it is slightly more interesting in it's symbolism and usage.

A sketch with lots of dark shadows showing a naked woman laying back and limp on a bed being mounted by a skeleton whose head rests on her breast.

La Possession by Albert Besnard, 1900

Lumped in with Death and the Maiden is also the popular theme of 'Eros and Thanatos', or sex and death. In these images, it is harder to tell if the women are being seized or being enraptured. The connections between sex and death are up for debate - some philosophers and art critics see the two themes as ultimate truths of being a human. The french word for orgasm 'La petite mort', the little death, brings another connection where the brief moment of sex and death are described as the same. Not all Death and the Maiden imagery is inherently sexual though. In the painting below, 'La Belle Rosine', the young model Rosine looks well and full of life with roses in her cheeks and hair, while looking at a skeleton, which if you look carefully has a label on the skull that reads 'La Belle Rosine'

A young beautiful woman, mostly nude, stands with her hands clasped in front of her looking into the face of a skeleton which stands facing her. The woman has flowers in her hair, the skeleton has a label on its head which has some small handwriting on reading 'la belle rosine'

La Belle Rosine by Antoine Wiertz, 1847.

You can take a few things from this painting depending on your outlook. It may be saying that regardless of your youth and beauty, we all end up the same, as bones. It could be a comment on the naivete of youth, as Rosine seems unaware that she is looking at her future self. I think this image is particularly interesting because the skeleton for once isn't depicted as a male personification of death, but as Rosine herself. I think the gendered nature of these images is often just a visual way of showing the opposing but coupled nature of life (fertile, feminine, beautiful) and death (powerful, final, inevitable). Showing two opposites that are really a part of the same cycle, two halves of a whole.

All the images so far are ones I found in a book called 'Death: A Graveside Companion' which I'm using for inspiration and reference material. While there are plenty more beautiful images of women and skeletons inside it, I thought I would also share some interesting offshoots I've found while researching:

A naked woman lays back naked on a bed. On the closer side of the bed a skeleton is kneeling next to her. On the far side of the bed, a naked man walks away with his face in his hands, towards a crowd of bodies.

Cooper, Richard Tennant, 1885-1957 Wellcome

The painting above, for example, shows three figures. The full title for the work on the Wellcome website describes the scene: A provocative naked young woman lying on a bed, death (a cloaked skeleton) sits at her side, a naked man walks away from the bed with his head bowed, towards a throng of diseased and dying people; representing syphilis. While I don't know the exact date this was painted, its probably fair to say that this iteration of 'Death and the Maiden' brings the two together as a force for spreading disease and killing men. Interesting.

A chase scene shows a man on a horse pulling a lady alongside him as they ride away, while a skeleton reaches out for them and bites the skirt of the lady's dress in it's teeth.

The Maiden, the Knight and Death, by Hans Baldung Grien (1485-1545)

The painting above (another Grien) is more focused on the struggle between life and death - the Knight is trying to save the woman from the grips of death. A much later painting (below) shows a similar struggle, but instead of a Knight on horseback, the man dragging the woman away from the grip of death is a doctor, representing the feats of modern medicine, but possibly also the struggles in medicine about deciding who to save and who to give up to death.

A man in medical uniform holds up the limp form of a nude woman while pushing away a skeleton that is kneeling beneath her, trying to pull her away from the man.

Physician Struggling with Death for Life by Ivo Saliger, 1920.

There are many, many more depictions of Death and the Maiden, and I'm drawn to all of them. I think the connections between life, sex and death are beautifully explored in many of the paintings and are a really interesting part of Memento Mori symbolism.

I recently live-streamed the creation of a ring inspired by this motif which you can find here. I will write up more on the process of making the ring in a future blog post.