Vegder's Blog

February 19, 2011

Skeletons, skulls and bones in Japanese Art and elsewhere – Part Three

Let me tell you – there are only two kinds of people in this world! – those who never believe me and those who claim not to, but secretly do.

The people who never believe me are idiots! Those who always pretend not to believe me aren’t idiots, but some of them border on it.* I came to this conclusion yesterday when riding my bike – and the day they killed bin Laden, but that’s not what’s important here.  I rode particularly hard and by the end I was totally soaked and dripping sweat and basking in the joy of all of those endorphins. A natural (and legal) high. Some of my clearest thinking happens on exercise days.

*To be fair to everyone – idiots, near idiots and non-idiots alike – I often make statements, believing myself to be right, when I am so, so wrong. Rack it up to human frailty. I do.

So what is it that people don’t believe about me this time or pretend not to? They just aren’t buying it when I tell them that I am not obsessed with skeletons and skulls no matter how much incriminating evidence there is to the contrary. Come on… you know I am not a dissembler!! When I tell you, dear reader, that I only chose ‘skeletons, skulls and bones’ as a topic, and keep placing variant posts about it on the web, it is because it is just another topic like any other topic. It is out there. You’ve got to believe me. It is simple as that. But why am I addressing this now? Because yesterday while as I was pushing myself physically I happened to notice the skull and crossbones warning bell cum compass on my bike and thought “How ironic!” How fitting.

I can remember the day I bought it. My choice was based on how loud the bell was and not its design. The design was just another one of life’s little jokes, a real perk. The skull and cross bones bell says nothing about me. By nature I am a pussycat and not a Hell’s Angel type. In fact, whenever I growl at people they yawn. (They yawn on many other occasions too when they are with me too, but more about that later.) Conclusion: the design couldn’t have been better suited to my wussiness. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

Now back to there being only two kinds of people in this world. Well… actually, now that I think about it, there are 3. A lot of people don’t speak English or at least my version of it and they wouldn’t be able to understand me anyway and, therefore, would probably be less judgmental than the first two groups. And what about those people who are deaf? Oooops, a 4th kind. In fact, to be honest, I mean completely honest, there are probably quite a few more categories.

So, believe me if you want to, but I won’t hold my breath. Besides, I am not doing this for your sake, but mine. However, you can join me in the sweetness of the fact that I am writing this close to the 66th anniversary of the announcement of Hitler’s death. Time and space. How gloriously fortuitous.

Note: I will probably move these new comments and the accompanying photo to my ‘About’ page soon, but for now I want it here. Live with it.

Fantasy? I just read The King Must Die by Mary Renault. It tells the story of Theseus and his many adventures. While performing as a bull dancer at the court of Minos on Crete Theseus often travels through the secret passages of the labyrinth in order to have trysts with Ariadne, the king’s daughter and high priestess. “Here were no stores, but now and then the rubbish of the ancient earthquakes, broken pots shaped without the wheel, or old crude tools. And once, where the earth had settled, there was a man’s white skull sticking out of the ground from the eye-sockets upward, before one of the great pillars. He still wore shreds of an old hide helmet. He was the Watcher of the Threshold, the strong warrior they bury living under a sacred place, for his ghost to fight off demons from it. I started, and then saluted him as became his honor. Ariadne had passed that way before, and only drew her skirt aside.” (This part was added on October 19, 2011.)

Memento mori

A fellow I have known for ages e-mailed me yesterday. Every so often he gets in touch, but rarely. He wrote to let me know he was still out there and paying attention to what I have been doing. He mentioned the pages devoted to tattoos on my other web site. For good measure he threw in a couple of pictures of his brand-spanking-new-day-old  grandchild in the arms of the proud father. The close up which can be seen above is an incredibly sock-knocking-off photo. What really got me after the cuteness factor wore off fractionally was that the tattoo of a skull and bones made for a remarkably striking contrast with baby. The juxtaposition of a new life with a graphic reminder of  the inevitability of everyone’s mortality is amazing. We come into this world as part of a grand cycle. As it says in Ecclesiastes: “…for every activity under heaven its time… a time to be born and a time to die.”

For those of you who aren’t religious just ask the Byrds, Judy Collins and Pete Seeger – Turn! Turn! Turn!

On an even more personal note: This incredible photo arrived at my computer at the same time that hundreds of thousands of Arabs are risking their lives  – and some of them are losing them – in order that others will live free. Those people are consciously facing their mortality and all of its consequences. Murders are taking place followed quickly by funerals and more murders and more funerals. I ascribed nothing mystical or cosmic to this: the baby, the skull tattoo and the yearning to be free have all met in time and space,  at least, in my head they have. I wish I could explain this better.

Don’t forget: Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas.

Quis Evadet? Who escapes?

Babies and bubbles and skulls, too  –

An inscription which accompanies this prints from 1594 says in part: “The fresh silvery flower, fragrant with the breath of spring,/ Withers once its beauty wanes;/ Likewise the life of man, already ebbing in the newborn babe,/ Vanishes like a bubble or fleeting smoke.” Goltzius engraving shown courtesy of the British Museum. © Trustees of the British Museum

The smoke in the background is a reference to Psalm 102:

For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones glow like burning embers

What is with the bubbles? Some dictionaries define ‘bubble’ as something insubstantial, groundless, ephemeral. Economic bubbles foster greed. Dot com bubbles, housing bubbles… oh, what the hell, let’s throw in Ponzi schemes. Avarice is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Bubbles burst. Like life bubbles always come to an end. Perhaps the picture shown below is the perfect metaphor for an upside down mortgage. It shows a photo – cropped by me – originally taken by Mila Zinkova and posted at Look carefully. It appears to reflect a house upright in the top and reversed and upside down in the bottom as though it was underwater. Perfect. But, just for good measure, to drive home the point of ephemerality, I have placed the photo of a beer bubble next to the first one. This one was taken by Markus Leupold-Löwenthal and placed at the same site. The point: All the beers and beer bubbles in the whole world won’t make things better, but its a start.

Man is a bubble – Homo bulla

Erasmus (1549 – 1636) quoted Varro (116 B.C. – 27 B.C.) as saying “Man is but a bubble.” Actually there is more to the original quote: “If a man’s a bubble, an old man is more so.” Erika Langmuir in Imaging Childhood points out that the original bubble being referred to was probably sea foam because modern soap from which bubbles could be blown was a much later invention. She also notes that often the putti are shown blowing bubbles through a straw, a “…dry husk of short-lived grass…” which extends the metaphor of life’s brevity. To support this she cites Isaiah 40:6-8:

All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
8The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Prior to that it appears in Psalm 103:

Man’s days are like the grass;
he blossoms like the flowers of the field;
a wind passes over them, and they cease to be,
and their place knows them no more.

Job 14 tells us that man is born of woman, his life is short and difficult. “He blossoms like a flower and then he withers…” This point is pounded home later by James and Peter, too.

Sadeler engraving after Marten de Vos shown courtesy of the British Museum. © Trustees of the British Museum

There is a mid-sixteenth century medal designed by Nickel Milicz showing a putto, a skull and an hour-glass. The inscription reads: Nihil morte certius hora autem mortis nihil incer or “Nothing is more certain than death, but nothing more uncertain than the hour of it.”

An engraving from ca. 1550 by Hieronymous Cock (ヒエロニムス・コック: ca. 1510 – 1570) possibly after Melchior Lorch. © Trustees of the British Museum

A drawing on vellum attributed to Jacob Hoefnagel from 1598. The vanity inset of the baby with the hour glass and skull is surrounded by dead and living flora and fauna. © Trustees of the British Museum

Madam Bubble is a slut!  – William Makepeace Thackeray (ウィリアム・メイクピース・サッカレ: 1811-1863) got the title of his most famous novel, Vanity Fair (虚栄の市), from a place name in John Bunyan’s ( ジョンバニヤン: 1628-1688) Pilgrim’s Progress (天路歴程). Here Bunyan explicitly links the ephemeral and vanity together in the person of Madam Bubble.

While Master Standfast was making his journey he  said that he encountered a woman “…in very pleasant attire, but old, who presented herself unto me, and offered me three things, to wit, her body, her purse, and her bed.” Standfast declined, but the woman, Madam Bubble,  just smiled and made the offer again. She promised him greatness and happiness. Again he declined. She told him she was the mistress of the world, but Standfast prayed for deliverance – and got it.

Another character in this allegory, Great-heart, described Madam Bubble to a tee: “This woman is a witch, and it is by virtue of her sorceries that this ground is enchanted. Whoever doth lay their head down in her lap, had as good lay it down upon that block over which the axe doth hang; and whoever lay their eyes upon her beauty, are counted the enemies of God.” Later she is described as “…a bold and impudent slut; she will talk with any man…. It was she that set Absolom against his father, and Jeroboam against his master. It was she that persuaded Judas to sell his Lord…. She makes variance betwixt rulers and subjects, betwixt parents and children, betwixt neighbour and neighbour, betwixt a man and his wife, betwixt a man and himself, betwixt the flesh and the spirit.”

Madam Bubble appeals to every man’s vanity and we all know what that will get you.

Putti with skulls

Horst W. Janson wrote in 1937: “Death in the numerous allegories conceived by the imagination of fifteenth and sixteenth century artists assumes its strangest, if not its most important, form in the putto with the death’s head. Unlike others, it was not founded on the  literary or pictorial traditions of earlier periods. Consequently,  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 earliest representation of a putto with a skull, according to Janson, is to be found on a medal designed by Givoanni Boldù in Venice in 1458. In his left hand the putto holds a bundle of flames: “There can be little doubt about the significance of the flame, a well-known symbol of the soul.” From it came many of the images we know today and many variations on the original theme – whatever that was. All the related images shown above rose from this design. Below is a picture of that medal from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

© V&A Images

The evolution of how men would represent death: Janson points out that “… to classic Greece death appeared as Thanatos, a youthful genius, and as a symbol of death the corpse was unknown.” However, in the late Middle Ages the ‘animated corpse’ made its appearance. On the left below is an ancient Greek representation of Thanatos from a piece in the British Museum. To the right of that is an image from an 18th century emblem book showing life and death together.

Lovis Corinth (ロヴィス・コリント : 1858 – 1925), a great German print maker, had a massive stroke in 1911, but continued working even though his hands trembled terribly after that. What he lost in precision he gained in expressiveness.  Through the years he had painted and drawn many self-portraits. The drypoint from 1916 entitled Der Künstler und der Tod I brings home his more urgent sense of mortality. Across the top the print is the name Thanatos written in Greek, but here is no ‘youthful genius’ as portrayed by the ancient Greeks. Instead it is a skeleton much closer to the medieval concept of the walking corpse. However, before you get the wrong idea, Corinth had already made use of a skeleton in his art long before his stroke – a concept harking back to the Danse macabre. In 1896 Corinth painted his commanding Selbstporträt mit Skelett as seen below on the  right.

The image on the left above is shown courtesy of the British Museum. © Trustees of the British Museum

We all know about Egyptian mummies, but what I didn’t know is that ” On festive occasions, small statues of dried out mummies were placed on the dining tables, reminding the guests of their future and thus inducing them to take full advantage of the present. When the Romans took over this usage, they replaced the mummy with the skeleton when representing man’s corporeal state after death.”

The mask as a substitute symbol for death – Sometimes the putti are accompanied by a mask instead of a skull. Janson, citing Deonna, added “…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.” Below are two examples from the British Museum. The first one is by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-50) showing two putting holding a shield with a mask surrounded by flames.To the left of that engraving is an etching by Jonas Umbach (ca. 1624-1700). It shows frolicking putti, one wearing a mask and a satyr. (This part was added on December 29, 2011.)

© Trustees of the British Museum

The bones of Adam or nascentes morimur – Ignorance, especially mine, can be a powerful thing. That is why I always tell people never to quote me because I am so often wrong. Take nacentes morimur as an example. If asked before I started this section I would have said that I thought this was probably a Christian reference. My loose translation – and remember, I did miserably in Latin in school – would be “You are born to die” or “We are…” Of course purists and pedants would disagree by degrees, but that is my translation and I will stand by it.

What’s remarkable is that this saying originates not in the bosom of the Church, but rather in something quite the opposite. It comes from Manilius in the 1st century A.D. and was meant to apply to astrology. For example: What’s your sign? Because if you know what their sign is then you know what’s coming for them – especially if you know all of the other related mumbo jumbo like which house and what was rising and falling at that time. Their birth sign inevitably leads to their demise and there ain’t nothing that can be done about that. Manilius wrote:

Fata regum orbem, certa stant omnia lege
Longaque per certos signantur tempora casus.
Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet.

Fate rules the world, everything is determined by a fixed law,
And long periods of time are marked with their certain events.
At birth, we die, and our end depends on our beginning.

It is what Manilius said right before “Fata regum orbem” which might be more important.I am not sure of the Latin, but it translates as “Set your minds free, mortal men, let your cares go and deliver your lives from all this pointless fuss.” Or, in modern speak: “Sit back and enjoy it. There is not a damn thing you can do about it.”

So, despite the fact that nacentes morimur was penned around the time of the Crucifixion, which was meant to redeem man of his original sin, it was in no way associated with it. However, in time it came to be linked in the minds of certain people to not only that act, but even was carried backwards to certain events which occurred in the Book of Genesis (創世記):  Adam (アダム)  did not know his own nakedness prior to biting into that damned apple he had no sense of mortality. But with one bite and a few commands later and he did.

In Genesis 2:25 it says: “Now they were both naked, the man and his wife, but they had no feeling of shame.” But the apple changed all that. Genesis 3:7: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they discovered that they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Then they hid. If things were bad enough already God found them out, placed several curses on them in including banishment from the Garden and topped it off with the fact that Adam “…would return to the ground; for from it you were taken. Dust you are, to dust you shall return.” Mortality! (Genesis 3:19)

There could be no clearer example of what was to come for mankind than what is represented in a 16th century woodcut after Sebald Beham showing Adam taking an apple from Eve (イヴ ), Eve taking an apple from the snake and centered above them all is an oversized skull.

© Trustees of the British Museum

This is the reason why images of Christ are so often accompanied with images of a skull with or without bones, Adam’s bones. The circle is complete. Nascentes morimur! Below is a painting referred to as The Meditation on the Passion by Carpaccio. Seated in the center is the figure of Christ. On the ground to his left are the skull and bones of Adam. (Below is a detail of the skull and bones.)

Janson noted that St. Jerome, from the 4th century and one of the founding fathers of the Catholic faith, repeated an older myth – of  local Jewish origin – that Adam’s burial site was on Golgotha. Hence, the skull and bones at the foot of the Cross. Later Christian scholars dismissed this concept, but still the bones showed up in later imagery as seen above and below. Besides, the Eastern Church continued to believe that Adam’s tomb was on that mount.

There is an amazing print after Guido Reni (グイド.レーニ: 1575-1642) in the collection of the British Museum. It shows the Christ child asleep on his cross. His head is resting against a large skull. Adam’s? A crown of thorns is leaning against one of the arms of the cross and nearby on the ground are three nails. To top this off and to make sure the image is unmistakable – as if that was possible – there is an hour glass on a ledge behind the sleeping infant. The sands of time. Nacentes morimur!

   © Trustees of the British Museum

A drawing from the school or circle of Jean Cousin the Younger (ca. 1525 – ca. 1595), also in the British Museum, shows a descent from the cross. In the lower left are the skull and bones of Adam.

  © Trustees of the British Museum  

A. E. Housman and Manilius – Housman, British poet and author of A Shropshire Lad, was also the greatest Latinist of his day. His finest achievement in that field was his sef-published translation of Manilius. But Housman wasn’t blind to Manilius’s flaws. He once wrote a colleague: “I adjure you not to waste your time on Manilius. He writes on astronomy and astrology without knowing either.” Housman wrote to an American that he wasn’t sending along a copy of the translations because Manilius “…is so dull that few professed scholars can read it…” and besides he doubted that there was anyone in the United States who could even understand it if he did.

Below is a 1926 charcoal drawing of Housman by Francis Dodd.

   © National Portrait Gallery, London

Before we leave Adam and the skull and Golgotha: In the end notes to a recent translation of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov it states that one of the sources for this author was a Russian translation of the apocryphal Book of Nicodemus in which it says: “This may all be related to… [the] ‘Legend of the Cross,’ in which the story of Adam’s skull is given, the huge skull which became Golgotha itself.” Later it notes: “…a reverse of the Eucharist, in which the wine is transformed into Christ’s blood, and possibly another reference to the ‘Legend of the Cross,’ which contains the explanation that Adam’s tree (in whose roots the skull was located) became Christ’s cross. When he bled from being pierced, that  blood soaked into the hill of Calvary/Golgotha, and onto Adam’s skull. This in turn freed Adam form his sin of having signed a pact with the devil to stay and work the earth after being expelled from Paradise.”

According to one of the versions of the ‘Legend” Adam begs his son Seth to seek redemption for him from the Archangel Michael. but Michael refuses. Instead he gives Seth a seed to plant into the mouth of his dying father. From this grows the tree of good and evil. Eventually it is cut down and made into planks crossing a river. As the Queen of Sheba is crossing this river on her way to meet Solomon she realizes the significance of these planks and kneels down on them. When she tells Solomon about this he has the planks removed. In some versions he tries to have them burned to avoid the prophecy, but they won’t burn. So, he has them buried. However, in time, it is these planks which are used to build the True Cross on which Jesus will be crucified, thus redeeming Adam of the original sin.

There is a series of frescoes at Arezzo painted in ca. 1460 by Piero della Francesca (ピエロ・デラ・フランチェスカ: ca. 1416/17-1492), one of my favorites, illustrating the Discovery and Proof of the True Cross. Below is one of the details from that series. I took it from commons.wikimedia.

OW! I’ve got a splinter (in my reliquary)  – At some point in the last half of the 17th century the tomb of  Queen Dagmar of Denmark was opened. “Dagmar, ‘The Darling Queen,’ was the daughter of Przemisl, better known as Ottocar King of Bohemia. In 1205… [she] married King Valdemar the Victorious, Seier of Denmark…” She died in 1213 and was buried with an elaborate cross resting on her chest. The cross was said to hold a piece  of the True Cross. When the Prince of Wales married a Danish princess in 1863 her father presented her with a copy of Dagmar’s cross.

In A Pilgrimage to Santiago, the author, Edwin Mullins notes that “Chartres no longer has its skirt of the Virgin but it still possesses a reliquary of the Circumcision. Reims has a reliquary of the Holy Thorn, Toulouse a reliquary of the True Cross, Conques an arm reliquary of St George, Boulogne a reliquary of the Precious Blood, and Évron a reliquary of Our Lady’s Milk…”

The Crusades must have been a boon for reliquarians. [Reliquarian is not a word. I just invented it. My suggestion: Ignore my use. Don’t use it yourself because if you do you will be wrong, too.] Splinters from the True Cross started showing up in droves. The only one I can ever remember seeing – and it made quite an impression on me – was in a reliquary in the chapel of an incredibly elaborate dollhouse in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. See the image below.

    Colleen Moore’s ‘Fairy Castle’, Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

According to the museum’s web site ” You will see the altar and a little tabernacle. On top of the tabernacle is a beautiful golden sunburst. In the center is a glass container holding a sliver of the true cross. This was given to Colleen by her friend, Clare Booth Luce, who was Ambassador to Italy and received the relic when she had her first audience with the Pope [Pius XII].”

Colleen Moore, born Kathleen Morrison, (1899 or 1900 -1988) was a silent film star. Below is a picture from the Library of Congress which I found at commons.wikimedia.

I wish I could give you a sense of scale to this place. It is amazing. Everything is soooooo small. In fact, it boasts having the smallest type-set printed bible in the world. I is displayed on a stand somewhere in this picture, but I am not exactly sure where. My eyes are failing me.

Double OW!! What’s worse than getting a splinter? Losing one – sometimes – There is an enameled cross dating from ca. 1150-1175 in the collection of the Walters Museum in Baltimore. It was used as a reliquary and was thought to hold a splinter from the True Cross, but a back panel is missing — and so is the splinter. However, I have decided that as long as I am rambling on about this theme that maybe it would be fairer to show you this remarkable work of the metal workers craft, too.

Notice: There is no skull below the cross, but there is the cup which receives the blood of Christ.

   Walters Art Museum

A Latin word for specter or ghost is larva. However, Petronius also used it for skeleton. This conforms to Janson’s comment that skeletons became a symbol to the ancient Romans of death in the underworld. These larvae could walk and talk and carry on ordinary activities. The best ancient representation is exemplified by the ‘skeleton cups’ found at Boscoreale near Pompeii. The silver repoussé cup shown below displays famous Greek poets and philosophers, including Menander, Euripides and Sophocles among others,  standing beneath a garland of roses. Zeno and Epicurus argue with each other right in front of mating dogs. There is also a Greek inscription which translates as “Enjoy life while you can, for tomorrow is uncertain.”

© Musée du Louvre

Skeletons portrayed on drinking vessels was in not way thought to be morbid. In fact, it was a celebration of life. A reminder, like that of a passage in the Satyricon by Petronius: “As we drank and admired each luxury in detail, a slave brought in a silver skeleton, made so that its limbs and spine could be moved and bent in every direction. He put it down once or twice on the table so that the supple joints showed several attitudes, and Trimalchio said appropriately: ‘Alas for us poor mortals, all that poor man is is nothing. So we shall all be, after the world below takes us away. Let us live then while it goes well with us.’ ”

Skulls and butterflies – In ancient Rome the butterfly came to be known as “…a common image for the soul.” Frequently it was paired with an image of a skull. This is an interesting juxtaposition for several reasons. One of these is that butterflies were considered the spirits of dead souls in Japan. I don’t know the source of this belief, but if it came into Japan with Buddhism that would make sense because Buddhism came into China from India and the core Indian belief systems are closely linked to those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This would be one case of cross-cultural borrowing which I could believe in.

Although it is not clearly visible in the images of the Boscoreale cup shown above there is a description from a volume originally published in 1926: “The field is filled by three large skeletons. The one nearest the column holds in its right hand a large purse full of money, and in its left hand a butterfly (typifying the soul), which it presents to the second skeleton.”

The butterfly as the soul and the nature of reality

Chuang Tzu (Ch. 莊子), the great Taoist thinker of the 4th to 3rd centuries B.C., supposedly wrote:

I do not know whether I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly,
Or, whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.

On a personal note: I tried googling the term ‘skull’ plus ‘butterfly’ and hitting the image search button. What came up were a ton of ‘interesting’ tattoos. And, I do mean a ton. Try it – if you care or dare and draw your own conclusions. If I have any thoughts about the results it would be that it strikes me as odd that an ancient Roman belief should show up so prominently on the flesh of young (and not so young) people today. Qualifying the search by adding words like ‘ancient’ and ‘Roman’ did nothing to clear out this mess.

On December 29, 2011 I finally found an example worth using. Below is another print from the collection of the British Museum. It is an etching by Joseph Fromiller (1693-1760). The connection is clear when you know that the insect sitting on the skull is said to be a butterfly.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

Those oh-so-subtle skulls – I was working on my latest post on bats which I started on April 12, 2012 when I ran across a reference to Dürer’s Melencolia print from 1514. Naturally I looked it up at the Metropolitan Museum’s website – an awesome site – because they do such a great job of displaying large, clear, clean reproductions. This is a print I already knew fairly well, but it wasn’t until I enlarged it that I noticed something I had never seen before – or, at least, never remembered seeing. There is shadow-like or even a stain of a skull on a large faceted stone. It is not so obvious in small reproductions, but in the enlargement by the Met it is unmistakable.

Perhaps the most remarkable skull of all time can be found in the 1533  Holbein painting of The Ambassadors now in the National Gallery London. That is, if you can find the skull at all. Anyone familiar with this painting knows that the slanting form which dominates much of the lower center of this oak panel is actually a distorted painting of a skull. Viewed straight on it looks like a… a… a… I don’t know what. However, when viewed from a sharp angle it is clearly a skull. The image on the left below is the full painting posted at Flickr by Tayete. I found the skull at commons.wikimedia where it was posted by Thomas Shahan.


What about the Japanese and bubbles?

I am not sure, but I think one could count the number of bubble-related Japanese woodblock prints on one hand, maybe two. That is probably because the Japanese don’t attach the same symbolism to bubbles as they do (or have) in the West. While I had trouble thinking of prints with bubbles in them I did come up with one prime and humorous example by Kuniyoshi. I modified the overall design so I could emphasize the bubbles themselves.  The picture is self-explanatory.

Yoshitoshi scary skull

What could be more natural?

Toyokuni I image of the priest Ikkyu carrying a skull. Below is a diptych from the British Museum collection of priest Ikkyu of encountering a famous courtesan. The humor and the irony should not be missed here.

© Trustees of the British Museum

Snow skulls and skeletons: the madness of Taira Kiyomori

The middle and left panel of a Hiroshige triptych showing Taira Kiyomori (1118-81) looking at at his snow covered garden at his Fukuhara Palace. These are shown courtesy of the British Museum. © Trustees of the British Museum

Below is a detail of the two left panels of a triptych by Yoshitoshi.

Before I leave you for now I want to emphasize that I find the picture of the newborn baby near the top of this page especially fine, don’t you think? One of my favorite images ever. Ever!

If you would like to get to our first post on this subject click on the link below:骸骨-髑髏-人骨/

For the second post go to

To see my web pages devoted to the Japanese and their tattoos – mainly in woodblock prints – you can start at

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