To represent Death means to be conscious of the destiny we must face as human beings. It is also the search for meaning and the approach to the unsolvable conflict we grapple with and can't comprehend: Why am I here and when will I leave?
Our existence is terminable and this materiality and impermanence creates an obsession with the finite and spurs a need to create memories and an urgency to feel pain. We must cram all these experiences and memories in these short lives and we must contend with unanswered questions and confusion.
Some people consider artistic works that depict death as a way to negate the suffering; however, we can't deny the sorrow or otherness created by this emptiness.
Sometimes, the inert body or the presence of death itself can convey peace, and even beauty and poetry, but in other cases Death can spark other feelings and cause a bigger impact, especially if it is tragic, painful, or unfair.
On few occasions painters focus on the characters grieving their loss or in the actual victim; generally, it is the scene as a whole that inspires the artist. This doesn't mean that there are details capturing the eyes of the viewer. Using brutal lines, deadening colors, and precise theatricality, some artists center their efforts on the face, specifically the gaze of those static beings that reached their earthly end.
The following works explore the concept of Death and the otherness the body acquires in the state of decomposition. Every time we stare into these deadened eyes, we can feel a singular distress.
"David with the Head of Goliath" (1610) Caravaggio
With interesting plays of light and neat brushstrokes, we are left with an everlasting impression of anxiety and repugnance. The fact that it is believed Goliath's face is a self-portrait of the artist makes this one of the most enigmatic paintings in the history of art.
"Ophelia" (1852) Everett Millais
Inspired by Shakespeare's play Hamlet and the prince's lover, Millais created one of the most evocative paintings in the memory of mankind. The beauty of a natural, quiet stream, the calmness of the landscape, and the disturbing, lifeless expression of Ophelia are a perfect combination for this splendid gloomy scenario.
"Ivan the Terrible and His Son" (1885) Repin
This oil painting shows a stupefied Ivan who, while hugging the dead body of his son, rethinks his actions. Blinded by a rage, he fatally wounds his offspring. Now their gazes are reverse; there is remorse, pain, and trauma in the face of the Czar, and silence in the gaze of the murdered son.
"Judith and Holofernes" (1599) Caravaggio
This is another example of the great Renaissance master, Caravaggio. In the painting we see the dead captain Holofernes in the hands of the seductive and majestic Judith, who was able to make him fall in love in less than a night. While she may look squeamish cutting his head off, she never loses her lady-like composure.
From the start, this painting caused horror for the realism and severity with which Holofernes' eyes reveal his astonishment and shock at his fate.
"Death and the Damsel" (1517) Baldung Grien
This girl is dead, and she doesn’t even know it. Grabbed by the hair, the young woman stands upon the precipice of life, and in any moment she will be dragged to a different place. It doesn’t matter if she looks up to the sky and prays for an alternative, there are no other paths to take. Destiny has signed a contract.
"Dorothy Hale's Suicide" (1939) Frida Kahlo
Many consider this painting from the Mexican artist to be the best of her career. It represents the death of one of her best friends, and it encloses one of the most terrifying eyes in art. Her gaze announces her desires to be parted from this life and how she meets her fate head on.
"The Body of The Dead Christ in the Tomb" (1498) Holbein
It is said that Holbein utilized a corpse he found in a nearby river as a model for this painting. It doesn't matter whether this is true or not, because what truly affects the viewer is the psychological work and the terror Holbein manages to depict. Instead of a placid and easy death, Holbein is ferociously faithful to reality, and we see Jesus in a way which has never been represented, as a man who suffered a terrible death.
"The Death of Queen Sophie Amalie" (1882) Zahrtmann
What are our eyes seeing? It isn’t the body of an old lady in an opulent room. It is the grotesque figure of a monarch who can’t escape the suffocating and excruciating feeling of dying alone. Her eyes reflect her desperation; her hands fiercely clutch the settee, and her mouth gapes wide, desperate for a last sweet breath on earth.
"The Face of War" (1940) Salvador Dalí
A Surreal face painted with dark, ochre colors is considered to be a warmongering premonition set between the end of the Spanish Civil War and the start of Second World War. Dalí painted a face that holds within thousands of other faces and deadened eyes. The eyes are crammed with skulls because there is no more space for one more trauma.
"Salome" (1530) Cranach
This is the story of a young princess, daughter of Filipo and Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod Antipas. She is advised by her mother to dance in her stepfather’s birthday, and as a present she asks for the head of John The Baptist to be laid out on a silver tray. The latter is a man who reproached the wedding of Herodias and Antipas. His gaping mouth and sideways glance is incredibly realistic and will make you flinch
The importance of death in the art world has lots of assorted and different meanings, evoking feelings of loss, desperation, astonishment, and affliction.
And there you have it. Im sure there are many more that didnt make this list, but you can also see plenty more rare, religious, esoteric, occult, and mythological masterpieces in our shop.