Vegder's Blog

March 20, 2012

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

I never would have imagined how endless this topic would be – or seem to be – when I started posting thoughts about it way back on August 4, 2009. But it is. It just goes on and on and on and my files for what should be added grow and grow and grow. Clearly I will be a skeleton long before the end ever comes. There is irony in that. Of course, there is irony in just about everything these days – even topics which hover just above the morbid. Don’t blame me. I am just the messenger.

Recently some friends of mine took a long vacation in southeastern Asia. They visited Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Lucky them. Since they have returned they have let out in dribs and drabs some of their photos. One of them on the husband’s Facebook page showed skulls from the Killing Fields. It was quite chilling. I called and asked him to send me some larger examples which I could post here. He sent me one his wife had taken which could hardly be ignored. On one level it is pure tragedy while on another it is a work of art. Both are bound together inextricably, but it took the wife’s eye to catch the tragic and ironic in one simple photograph. It represents both pathos and humor – two emotions not easily reconciled. See for yourself. Some of you will not agree with my assessment. That’s okay. It is hard to find humor in something so exceedingly horrific, but here I think she succeeded.

Gentle Clarence’s monologue from Richard III – The other day one of the movies shown on TV was an updated version – updated in setting, not in text – Richard III by Shakespeare. A favorite of mine. I love watching, reading and listening to Shakespeare over and over because every time I hear something new or have a new revelation. This time it was Clarence’s monologue.

Clarence has been accused of treason against the king, his brother, and is consigned to the Tower. There he has a frightening dream in which he and his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the arch-villain of this tale, are walking together when Richard falls into the sea.

Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard,
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Lord, Lord! methought what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks; 
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scattered in the bottom of the sea.
Some lay in dead men’s skulls, and in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept

As ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
That woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep
And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by. 

There is more to Clarence’s death than meets the eye. He is asleep when his murderers arrive. He awakens and knows what is about to happen to him. Clarence tries to reason with them, but they are on a mission. In the movie I referred to above the assassins catch him in his bath, slit his throat and drown him. In the play, Act I, Scene IV they catch him in his bed, stab him and then drown him in a large cask of Malmsey, a sweet wine Shakespeare would have been more than familiar with. Right before the heinous act, the first murderer says to Clarence  “Make peace with your God, for you must die, my lord…”

Another aside: In the Twelfth Night by Shakespeare Olivia asks the clown “What’s a drunken man like, fool?” The clown answers:

Like a drowned man, a fool and a mad man: one
draught above heat makes him a fool; the second mads
him, and a third drowns him. 

Damien Hirst’s bejeweled skull – Clarence’s comments made me think of the platinum and diamond encrusted skull designed by Hirst and produced by Bentley and Skinner of Bond Street, jewelers to the Queen. This artwork is entitled “For the Love of God”. What else could it be? There are 8,601 pavé-set diamonds, i.e., diamonds mounted so closely together that you cannot see the mountings that they are set into. The skull looks like it is paved with precious stones. Notice the flawless, pink pear-shaped diamond set into the middle of the forehead.

Starting in April 2012 this piece is going on display in the Tate Modern. For how long? I don’t know. I suppose that will depend on the generosity of the consortium that owns it. Also, it can’t be a coincidence that this is Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee year, can it?

This image, which I have altered somewhat was posted at Flickr by loungerie. If for any reason, this conflicts with copyright laws I will gladly remove it if notified by the appropriate authorities. Otherwise it will stay here for all to see and enjoy. Let’s hope for the latter.

The crystal skull hoax! or hoax? – I think this issue has been resolved. All of the larger crystal skulls which were claimed to be pre-Columbian are definitely hoaxes. Of course, there are people who will never accept that they aren’t authentic, imbued with supernatural powers. But then again, I once knew a woman, whom I really liked and respected, who swore that Vice President Spiro Agnew was the greatest vice president who ever lived. However, an official site on this man says that President Nixon thought that no one would ever impeach him if it meant elevating Agnew to the presidency.  Of course, it wasn’t just my friend who thought Agnew was greatest. Even Frank Sinatra told the V. P. to fight on. However, to avoid jail time Agnew pled nolo contendere and agreed to pay back taxes on unlisted bribes and resigned his office. [Sinatra lent him the money so he could pay the IRS.] My point: Against all evidence to the contrary some percentage of the populous is going to believe what they are going to believe – even about large crystal skulls.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

Fake, schmake, I am a sucker for large rock crystal items. I don’t own any, nor do I want to, but I do really-really love looking at them no matter how inauthentic they are. (I love the authentic ones too.) And, as far as I can tell, the British Museum continues to display this head just with the appropriate labeling. The story of this skull and the research on others is quite revealing: 1) Many of the fakes passed through the hands of a late 19th century French antiquities dealer named Eugène Boban who had once lived in Mexico; 2) The only two places on earth where such large rock crystal deposits could be found which could provide a chunk large enough to carve such a head – Brazil and Madagascar – and neither one was a trading partner with the Toltec, Mixtec, Aztec, Maya or others from that region; 3) Modern technological techniques have allowed us to examine closely how these skulls were carved and indicate that a jeweler’s or lapidary wheel was used. William Foshag, a mineralogist working for the Smithsonian realized this in the 1950s; 4) None of the original records of archaeological discoveries in the Mexico and Central America list any large crystal skulls. 5) The iconography of the carving does not line up well with the other skull images from those pre-European-invasion cultures.

Even the small crystal skulls which are thought to be relatively authentic have their issues. These smaller items, which all vertical holes drilled through them from top to bottom,  may have been pre-Colombian beads which were re-carved once they arrived in Europe.

There must be a story here – For the gazillionth time, it doesn’t take Rod Stewart to tell us that there is more to this print than meets the eye. The History: According to the accounts there was a Lord Hotta in Shimōsa Province. He was a real cruel bastard and treated the peasants horrendously.  In fact, the situation got so bad that the leader of the peasants went to Edo to petition the shogun for relief. He did this knowing that it was a mandatory death sentence for any peasant and his family to even approach the shogun.  The Theater: For reasons it would take too long to explain, all names of real life historical places and people were changed for the theater, but the theater goers would generally know what they were talking about. In the print shown below the evil lord is suffering from some kind of malady which causes him to see and be plagued by ghosts. The whitish figure in the center of the print, with outstretched arms and legs, represents the dead peasant leader who was crucified because of his social transgression. The ghosts of other victims of the lord’s cruelty are represented by the snow/skull like heads. And, just to press home the point, Kuniyoshi has drawn an ectoplasmic arm and hand which is caressing the ailing ruler’s cheek. In the lower right of the print is the outline of a ghost which seems to be there holding council with the ‘maddened lord

This information and more was provided by Sarah E. Thompson in her Utagawa Kuniyoshi: The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō.

Ainsworth Bequest, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

You want skulls? I’ll give you skulls – The earliest example I have found of an actor as Teranishi Kanshin in print form wearing a robe decorated with skulls is from the early part of the 19th century. It is by Toyokuni I and is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A beautiful design.

I will never cease to be amazed by the creative genius of Kuniyoshi who designed the print shown below. It dates from ca. 1845-46 and is from a series which marries Genji references to contemporary stage performances. The connections are often tenuous and at times most probably fictional, but who cares? What amazes me the most is the skull and how it appears to be composed of an octopus folded in on itself. Just look at its lower jaw with the teeth. Its the tentacled arm of that creature.

   © Trustees of the British Museum    

Below is another print by Kuniyoshi from 1852 showing the character Teranishi Kanshin wearing a robe decorated with decrepit skeletons. But note also the title cartouche in red in the upper right. Notice anything odd about its border?

More text to follow soon #3.

               © Trustees of the British Museum – on loan from Professor Arthur Miller

A particularly fine touch in the print shown above is the landscape inset in the upper left. Sarah E. Thompson in her book The Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaidō points out that this section is printed in the shape of a skull. Even the landscape. See for yourself.

    © Trustees of the British Museum – detail

Another example by Kuniaki II (1835-88) of an actor wearing a similar robe playing the same role is in Boston. This print dates from 1862. (See below – the full print on the left and a detail on the right.)     

A cautionary note: Kanshin is not the only character that wears robes decorated with skulls. Tōken Jūbei does too. The most stellar example is a print by Hokushū (active from ca. 1809-32) from ca. 1822. The second one is by Kunikazu (1849-67) from ca. 1860. Both were produced in Osaka. The one on the left is from the MFA in Boston while the one on the right is from the Walters in Baltimore.

                                                                                                                                                  Walters Art Museum

Skulls as a fashion statement – Sometimes skulls are worn as necklaces.

Or consider the skulls worn by Kali, the Indian god of destruction (and creation). In most literature she is described as wearing a garland of skull, but the images mainly show severed heads. I suppose, technically speaking – why quibble with Kali? – they are skulls but with their mortal coverings still attached. Below of two such examples. The first one is from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and is said to date from ca. 1800 and the second is from the British Museum, and unlike anything else shown on this page, is a lithograph from ca. 1895.

          Walters Art Museum           

   © Trustees of the British Museum

What do you wear when you can’t find your tiara? Your crown of skull, of course – Below is an anonymous French ‘satirical’ print of the head of Marat, the Marat of the French Terror, the Marat of the famous bath scene by David, the Marat who was assassinated by a provincial woman, Charlotte Corday, on July 13, 1793. One of the most vilified men of all history is shown here wearing a crown of skulls and nails.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

Just to drive this point home, the Marat-point, here is another print after Paul Baudry from the British Museum from the mid to late 19th century. Notice her crazed look. Notice the knife.

    © Trustees of the British Museum

Of course, satire was in the air, especially in late 18th century England. Below is James Gillray’s take on the trial of Charlotte Corday. She displays a degree of elegance while her judges are shown as freakish caricatures. The body of Marat is the bloody body of Marat on display at the bottom of the print. Needless to say, she was convicted and guillotined. Sadly we don’t have her skull to add to this gory tale.

    © Trustees of the British Museum

Now, before we leave the concept of wearing skulls as a crown you should see what else I found. It is a 19th century Tibetan thang-kha featuring Mahākāla, a god who drinks the blood of his victims from a bowl made from a skull. It is sloshing about, but it is the crown I want you to focus own. Chic, eh?

       © Trustees of the British Museum

The skull as netsuke

  © Trustees of the British Museum

There is one more skeleton netsuke from the collection at the Met worth showing here. It dates from the 19th century.

If I didn’t know better I would swear that this next piece is a Japanese netsuke, but… However, according to t he Walters this tiny little, 2 5/8″ high, carving is Flemish and from the first half of the 17th century. Otherwise, I would swear…

    Walters Art Museum

A 17th century German skull watch case –

   © Trustees of the British Museum ((Below is a frontal view and below that shows the inside of the watch face.)


You know those ads for botox or wrinkle removers or weight loss products? Well, this next little, and I do mean little, piece would fit the bill for before and after images if it weren’t so gruesome. I ran across it while looking through the on-line collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. They don’t know its exact date or even its place of origin, but it is made of ivory and is only 2 7/8″ high. Described as a “Pendant with Monk and Death” it seems so familiar, so up to date except in the modern photos of before and after the before is nearly always glum looking while the after has a sparkle in its eye at the least and is smiling and fresh at its most. What I don’t know is how they know it is a monk. The death part I get. That’s obvious. See if you agree.

   Walters Art Museum

Two skull related items from the Rijksmuseum – As I was looking for new skull and bone related art works in the Rijksmuseum I ran across two which I thought would make interesting additions to this series of posts. The first is a trepan dating from 1693 to 1702. So, you are probably asking yourself “What the ‘h’ is a trepan?” Well, I’ll tell you. It is what surgeons used to drill holes into the skulls of living people. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that it comes from the Greek terms for ‘to bore’ and ‘hole’.

What I am about to tell you won’t come as any surprise to those of you who keep up on the history of trepanation, but it came to me like a bolt out of the blue:  There is actually a book called Trepanation: History, Discovery, Theory from 2003. Amazing, isn’t it? I am going to try to read this book and get back to you later. Sooner if possible.

    © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This is from the book mentioned above, and then some: Paul Broca (1824-80), a French scientist, anthropologist and physician, located the part of the brain where speech originates. This in called ‘Broca’s area’. He was elected President of the Paris Surgical Society in 1865 and Professor of Clinical Surgery in 1868. After mapping out the cerebral topography he “…used his new method to trepan the skull and drain an abscess in patient [sic] whose speech had become impaired after a closed head injury. Even though brain tissue was not removed, some authors regard Broca’s case as the first brain surgery to be based on the theory of cortical localization of function.” Like everyone else at that time, Broca did not believe that there were any examples of trepanning prior to ancient Greece. Then in 1867 “…he was shown an old Peruvian skull with cross-hatched cuts.”

While the skull shown below is Peruvian it is not the one Broca saw, but it is ancient and displays the same basic techniques used to relieve the victims suffering. It was posted at Flickr by Luciana Christante who admits to not knowing its age.

There was an article in 1877 about this Peruvian technique where it was surmised that “a burin, or tool like that used by engravers on wood and metal” had been used and not a drill. When Broca first saw the original example he guessed that the patient could have survived for a week or two at most.

“As for Broca, the skull marked a great moment and a turning point in his illustrious career. One year after he presented the Peruvian skull in Paris, trepanned skulls and fragments dating from the Neolithic Period (c. 3,000 –2,000 BC) began to be found began to be found on French soil by his friend and associate P.-Barthélemy Prunières. Although Prunières… at first misinterpreted his specimens (he thought the openings were made after death to allow the skulls to serve as ceremonial drinking cups), Broca… recognized the trepanned skulls for what they were and worked diligently in the 1870s to understand how trepanation was performed and why. In this context, he published a plethora of papers and notes, and even a book on trepanation, for which he was well recognized by the scientific community…”

The second great skull-related piece in the Rijksmuseum is a reliquary bust of St. Frederick made in Utrecht in 1362. It contains bits of the skull of said saint.

I will write about this saint and reliquaries in general later, but as a note to myself right now I have to remember to look up terms like Sabellianism, Arianism and the Athanasian Creed. Arianism I have looked up before, but like so many other things these days I just can remember exactly what it stands for. The others are relatively new to me – especially Sabellianism. Of course, none of this is important to you right now and you may have wasted a bit of your time just reading this, but… so goes life. Sorry!

I now know more today, April 9. 2012. than I did yesterday. Sabellius, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, flourished in ca. 220 and taught that Father, Son and Holy Ghost are all parts of a single divine being. The same source tells me that Arianism, based on the teachings of Arian (ca. 250 – ca. 336), argued that Christ was not divine, but God is. The Athanasian Creed, of disputed origin, sets forth the principles of the Trinity and Incarnation. Now we can move on – okay?

   © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In a book listing the emblems of each saint it says that the motif used for St. Frederick is two swords because he was martyred by two men who thrust him through. A quick search led me to a tiny print by Jacques Callot (ジャック. カロ: 1592-1635), one of my favorite print makers of all time, showing St. Frederick being struck down by his assassins. I found it at Viquipèdia. So, why was he martyred? The answer may lie in a book published in 1904, Lives and Legends of the English Bishops and Kings, Mediaeval Monks and Other Later Saints: “St. Frederick, who was Bishop of Utrecht from 820 to 838, and is occasionally represented in the robes of his office, with two swords piercing his breast, or in the hands of two assassins who are stabbing him, is said to have brought his terrible doom upon himself by his plain speaking to Queen Judith, the second wife of Louis le Débonnaire, whose plots against her stepsons he had discovered. ”

Judith was Louis the D’s second wife and was his blood relative. Turns out that Frederick railed against their unionon the grounds that it was somewhat incestuous. Louis told Judith that she should either win Frederick over to their side or have him killed. I guess she failed on the first count, but succeeded on the second. This is all so Lion-in-Winterish it’s amazing. Different characters, same sort of intrigues. Or, what about Becket where Henry II of England had him killed in the cathedral? Just ask T.S. Eliot. It’s all the same – basically. And what do you get in the end? I ask you: bones. See, there is a thread here. It always leads to bones and more bones and more…

A note to sticklers and women named Judith: There are other versions of the account of Frederick’s martyrdom and not all of them blame Louis’s wife. Some of them say it was a group of pagans who resented Frederick’s butting into their lives. They didn’t want to be converted so they killed him.

Now, excuse me, I have to go off on another tangent: Louis the Debonair (778-840)? What a great name. But who was he? He was one of the three sons of Charlemagne and he was also known as Louis the Pious. Imagine being known by such a  nickname – Debonair, not Pious. I’m a bit envious. [Not really.]

And now a message from my friend Mike

I just started this new post and there will be much more to follow. What? Your guess is as good as mine right not. So, please be patient and come back often. Thanks.

1 Comment »

  1. Another in a series of great essays (you need to assemble these into a book – would you like me to do that for you?)!


    I’d like to place an order, please.
    1) Send me that watch-case! The German one? From the 17th Century? The one which, when you open its mouth reminds you what’s happening?
    2) and I want the hat, too! The one with the skull and X-bones knitted in? With the pink kitty-ears? Yeah. I want that, too, OMG!

    Comment by Mike — March 22, 2012 @ 9:38 am | Reply

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