Everyday of our lives we are bombarded by thousands of different images that affect us in different ways, but there’s one sort of image that is most powerful. While it terrifies us, it also comforts, while it manipulates, it’s also reassures; it is the image of death.
We are all drawn to images of death. We build graveyards and monuments to the dead and their photographs fill our homes, but why? What makes us surround ourselves with constant reminders of death?
One obvious reason we surround ourselves with images of dead people is that we loved them, but I wonder if there’s something more going on. What if they are triggering a range of emotions we are not aware of — more to do with our death; helping us to overcome our fear of death.
Jericho is famous for the story of how Joshua and his trumpets brought the walls tumbling down about 3000 years ago. But as a city, it’s much older than that and it's history might help us better understand ourselves. In an archeological find, a human skull was found. At this point you're probably sarcastically thinking "big deal, human skulls are found everywhere", the interesting thing about this find wasn't so much that it was a skull, but that it was found decorated by an artist and rebuilt to create a delicate face. Furthermore, a total of nine decorated skulls where found with it and the find was lodged above the floor or someones ancient home! What were they for? They were designed to stand upright, perhaps on the floor or in some niche. They were artistic representations of the dead made to be seen by the living. Jericho wasn’t the only place like this, we find similar findings across the ancient world and this verifies our biological disposition that human beings are aware that someday they will die.
Art takes the natural world and aims to give us some control over it. By creating images of death, we’re reassuring ourselves that death isn’t so bad after all. What’s happening in our minds when we see images of death? When we think about death, images of people who have already died reassure us.
Oh and just a side note, life expectancy in Jericho was just twenty-four years, so images of the dead would have really comforted.
Reassurance is only part of the story. Some images have the opposite effect. Images can be upsetting, even disturbing. Why?
Let's look at the Aztecs who performed human sacrifice, over the period of four days the high priests killed 40,000 people! They used art as a form of documentary (and hence reenforcing the message of human sacrifice) but why killing on such a scale? Their religion believed that they as people were forever indebted to the sun god and that a blood sacrifice would essentially "keep the sun working". As depicted in the carvings below, the sun-god is holding two hearts in it's hands.
When people are reminded of their own mortality, they’re going to lash out at those who have a different belief system then their own. When reminded of death we become more invested in our own belief system and people who differ become a threat to our personal psychology. Images of death are used to bind people to a cause, as seen with the Aztecs (and throughout history, such as with the Nazi's skull and cross-bone symbol on some of the uniforms).
Images of death can either reassure us or terrify us but just imagine the power of an image that could do both!
In the western world, this one of the most familiar images; it’s used to reassure people. Even if you’re not Christian, there are plenty of people who take great comfort from it. But just for a moment, look at the cross, simply as an image. It’s the figure of a man, oozing blood, experiencing an agonising death — it should terrify us!
The cross is the single image that is working on the human mind in two opposing ways. It’s a terrifying image representing pain, loss and suffering and yet at the same time, it’s an image that reassures, one that holds out hope. This combination has made the cross one of the most powerful symbols ever and it explains why so often it’a been used to try to give meaning in the face of the incomprehensible loss of life.
Death has captured the human mind and that drove us to create the most powerful images in the world.