A Short History of Skulls as Decor

Slate's Culture Blog
June 2 2011 5:49 PM

A Short History of Skulls as Decor

Last week, MeghanMcCain confessed her ardent love of skulls to the New York Times . "I have 10 of them," she gushed, describing thecranial statues that reside in her West Hollywood apartment. "I have one on mynight stand; one on my desk; crystal ones in my kitchen; one that's filled withvodka; some with diamond eyes."

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Throughout history, skulls have been particularlymultipurpose symbols. Want to honor the dead? Use a skull. Promote eternalwisdom? Skull. Warn against corruption and temptations of the flesh? Skull. Butthe story of how the flesh-stripped head went from weighty icon to pop imagedecorating t-shirts , bookshelves , lamps , jewelry ,and walls is a bit more obscure.

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According to Michelle Bonogofsky, editor of  TheBioarchaeology of the Human Head and SkullCollection, Modification and Decoration , there's a dearth of researchon the history of skull decoration. People began displaying skulls on benches,on floors, and on shelves as early as 7,200 B.C., in the Middle East. Theproblem, Bonogofsky says, is that these archaeological records predate anywriting system by 4,000 years. "We're not sure if they were using them todecorate, or if they were saying, 'This is our portrait of Mom that we're goingto keep around,' " she says.

Skull icons have a long and storied history inLatin America. In Mesoamerica, which includes parts of modern-day Mexico,Honduras, and El Salvador, "heads were considered the locus of individuality,"explains JuliaGuernsey , associate professor of art history at the University of Texas. Startingaround 1,200 A.D., the Aztecs in the region built skull racks (structures theyadopted from the earlier Toltec people) to display the heads of warriors defeatedin the violent, semi-spiritual ball game known as ulama or pitz . By 300A.D. or so, skull imagery became synonymous with Mexico's Day of the Deadceremony, in which it continues to play a prominent role, invoking themes of deathand the transience of life.

The skull crept into European decorative art inthe mid-1300s, after the bubonic plague killed a quarter of the population. Itgenerally served as a memento mori ,symbolizing both mortality and celebration. If it embellisheda drinking cup , for example, that meant: "Live it up! Life is short." (Perhapsthis is the implicit message behind McCain's own liquor-filled cranium.) Thepractice of decorating European churches with bones and skulls began as earlyas the 15 th century (the French may have started the trend), thoughit ended by the 19 th when most countries outlawed the exhuming of bones.Famous examples of skeleton-adorned churches include Poland's Chapel ofSkulls , built in 1776, and the Chapelof Bones in Evora, Portugal, both of which boast creepy skull-lined ceilings. 

And of course, skulls adorned the flags of pirateships. In the 1700s, pirates flew flags with skulls and crossbones to indicate arogue identity: They showed that the crew didn't follow the rules of anycountry, and would stop at nothing to win a fight.

So when did skulls come to the United States,and, eventually, Meghan McCain's apartment? It all started in the 1920s and '30s,when American artists began to experiment with mural-making and looked to thesouth for inspiration. Mural culture in Mexico was already well established(think Diego Rivera ) and rifewith skull imagery drawn from the Day of the Dead tradition. These iconseventually made their way into American art, such as Georgia O'Keeffe's "Headwith Broken Pot" and Albert Potter's "Brother,Can You Spare a Dime." Meanwhile, spooky actor Vincent Price famously collectedMexican art he founded an art museum todisplay his collections in 1957 which may have contributed to theskull-and-death imagery that began to dominate Hollywood horror films.

Pop-influenced visual artists may have helpedtake the skull from serious artistic symbol to UrbanOutfitters-approved decorative image . In 1976, AndyWarhol produced "Skulls," a series of ten pictures of human skulls indistinct colors. In 2007, artist Damien Hirst unveiled "For the Loveof God," a platinum skull encrusted in 8,601 diamonds, which cost $23.6million to create. Influential fashion icon Alexander McQueen, who died lastFebruary, was well known for putting skulls on scarves,purses, rings, and tank tops . The Grateful Dead and heavymetal bands probably deserve some credit for bringing the skull into popculture, too.

Eccentric as McCain's particular brand of skullobsession may be, it's possible she just can't help it. Rex Koontz of theUniversity of Houston says that McCain's Arizona origins set her up for a lifeof skull love.

"The relationship with 20 th centuryMexican visual culture is pretty intense in the Southwest," he says. "It's muchmore endemic out there. It's the way [Southwesterners] differentiatethemselves."

Meghan, consider yourself differentiated.

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