Skulls. For some, skulls serve as a ghoulish reminder of our own mortality. But throughout Mexico and Central America, skulls have long been a hallmark of celebrating death as a part of life in one of the most colorful and unique ways.
The iconic Calavera, or sugar skull, plays a leading role in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations as a symbol of our loved one’s departed soul. Traditionally, the name of the deceased is written on a skull’s forehead and placed on the home altar or gravestone to welcome the spirit’s return for one special event each year. Today, Calaveras are seen everywhere in Day of the Dead celebrations – in toys, sculptures, confectionery, and masks to wear in cemetery processions.
How did this romanticism of the Calavera start? What has it represented over the years? Let’s take a look at some of the more famous examples of Calavera art through the ages to find out:
The Ancient Aztecs
To the Aztecs, the worship of death was indivisible from the worship of life, and the skull – a symbol of death – also personified the promise of rebirth. Skulls were used everywhere in Aztec culture – they were stamped on pots, traced on scrolls, woven into garments, and carved into hieroglyphs.
The Aztec Mosaic skull of Tezcatlipoca was created in 15th-16th century C.E from a real human skull, which was cut away at the back and lined with deer skin on which a movable jaw was hinged. The exquisite mosaic decoration alternated between bands of bright blue turquoise and black lignite, and the eyes were made of two orbs of polished iron pyrite framed by rings made of white conch shell. The nasal cavity was lined with plates of bright red oyster shell. This skull is believed to represent the god Tezcatlipoca, or “Smoking Mirror.” One of four powerful deities, Smoking Mirror was one of the most important gods in the Aztec culture, and the mask was likely worn by a high priest.
The next several hundred years were a dark age for Mexican skull art. When the Spanish invaded and conquered Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in the sixteenth century, they imposed Catholic religion and Spanish cultural practices on the native people, suppressing the tradition of celebrating the dead – and along with it, Mexican skull art. Not until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 did skull art begin to re-emerge as a cultural symbol.
Jose Guadalupe Posada
Fast forward several hundred years to the early 20th Century. During his lifetime, José Guadalupe Posada witnessed firsthand the social and political upheaval which shaped Mexico into the modern nation we know today. Changes such as a dictator’s downfall, a social revolution, and the birth of democracy were documented through his work as a political caricaturist.
Posada became famous for drawing Calaveras as vain skeletons dressed in the clothing of the wealthy. Part satirical, part grotesque, and 100% political, Posada’s Calaveras were stripped of their religious mysticism to make way for commentary on ordinary Mexican life. His illustrations were published in magazines and papers, delivering art for the first time to the middle and lower social classes. With an illiteracy rate in Mexico at almost 90%, most people picking up a magazine or newspaper couldn’t read the articles, but they could easily interpret Posada’s witty illustrations.
The most famous of Posada’s Calaveras was Catrina. Sporting a feathery hat, fancy shoes, and the long dress of the European aristocracy, Catrina poked fun at those who fervently wished to copy the habits and traditions of the well-off upper class. She served as a poignant reminder that no matter how rich or poor, famous or unknown, all people are united in death. We may wildly differ in life, but in the end we are all just bones. To this day, Catrina is a widespread symbol of Day of the Dead celebrations.
Diego Rivera was a memorable figure in 20th century Mexican art. He lived in unsettled times and led a turbulent life, and he left an artistic legacy of Mexico’s working class that continues to inspire the imagination. Later in life, Rivera divorced his first wife and married his true love, fellow Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Like Posada before them (whom Diego often referred to as his “artistic father”), the couple became fierce promoters of ironic political and social art that spoke to the masses. For this reason, they often chose to paint large murals in public spaces like streets, squares, schools, hospitals, and government buildings.
His enormous 1947 mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central in Mexico City is a wonderful allegory of life and death. The magnificently-dressed Calavera Catrina is pictured front and center. Holding her hand is the young Diego, who stands in front of is true love Frida – here represented as a mother and holding the Chinese symbol of the Yin and Yang in her hand, a symbol of the pre-Hispanic mythology of the dual spirit.
Kahlo spent the late 1920s and early 1930s traveling in Mexico and the United States with her husband Diego Rivera. During this time, she developed her own style as an artist, drawing her main inspiration from Mexican folk culture. But where Diego’s art focused more on political commentary, Kahlo often explored the dark side of life. “My painting carries with it the message of pain,” she once said. Although not solely dedicated to skull art, many of her paintings focus on death – and naturally, Calaveras played a role.
The Girl with Death Mask depicts a little girl believed to be Frida herself at four years old, wearing a traditional Day of the Dead skull mask. She’s holding a yellow blossom in her hands which resembles the marigold bloom that is spread on graves at Dia De Los Muertos festivities. She stands alone in a vast field under a gray sky with a carved wooden tiger mask at her feet. Both masks are symbolic of longing and loneliness and hint at her perception of the cruelty of her destiny to live much of her life alone.
Damien Hirst is not a Mexican artist, but he has created one of the most magnificent and valuable works of Calavera art in history- a stunning piece that would make any precious metals enthusiast gape in wonder.
The 2007 work entitled For the Love of God is an original 18th-century skull that has been cast in platinum and encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds – including a pear-shaped pink diamond located in the forehead called the Skull Star Diamond. The artwork is a “memento mori”, or reminder of the mortality of the viewer. For the Love of God sold at private auction for $123 million – a record price for work sold by a living artist – to an anonymous buyer who paid cash and left no paper trail. Who could it be? We may never know.
Which brings us to…
Our October giveaway!
Provident Metals is proud to introduce the first in an annually-released, limited-mintage series of Dia De Los Muertos .999 pure silver rounds. The inaugural 2018 “Diamond Skull” design comes in three variations: A 1 oz proof round, a 1 oz colorized round, and the unprecedented 1 oz black stencil round.
If you had to choose one, which would you select, and why?
Commenting below will serve as your entry for our October giveaway. Submit your comment (one comment only please) by October 31st, and one winner will be randomly selected on November 1st (the Day of the Dead) to receive YOUR CHOICE of one of the three 2018 Dia De Los Muertos 1 oz silver rounds!
*(Inappropriate or duplicate comments will be deleted and disqualified.)