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Morbid Monday: Skeleton On Your Back

article-imageHuastec Life-Death Figure, front and back view, sandstone (900-1250) (via Brooklyn Museum)

While centuries separate us from the creators of this Huastec statue, its dual perspectives of a sturdy young man on one side and a skeleton draped, grinning on the other, still have an immediate message: death is always near. 

The sandstone sculpture stands at the center of the Brooklyn Museum’s ongoing Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas exhibition, which focuses on life’s transitions through its Art of Americas collection. The Huastec “Life-Death Figure” is joined in a gallery on death by such artifacts as a miniature of a Los Hermanos Penitentes Society cart pulled in Holy Week, Doña Sebastina, the “female Angel of Death,” perched inside, and a 19th-century Heiltsuk ladle with a skull symbolizing the rebirth from a cannibalistic death state to life in society. 

As the Brooklyn Museum explains of their “Life-Death Figure”: 

Representing life, the human figure is the Aztec wind god, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who created humankind and is identifiable by his J-shaped ear pendants. Representing death, the skeletal figure with a protruding heart wears a collar and skirt decorated with a half-circle motif that was associated with the sun and the planet Venus.

Venus in particular was linked with the underworld, and further details on the sculpture, like the dense tattoos laced over the man’s skin, echo the sun and Venus, life and death. The Huastec culture on the Gulf Coast of Mexico has a particularly rich history in sculpture, with the figure at the Brooklyn Museum dating between 900 and 1250 only one example of how the transition between different states was represented. As Richard E. W. Adams wrote in his Preshistoric Mesoamerica book, several “sculptures from the Huasteca seem to represent life images of a person on one side and a death image on the other.” Others have a child clinging to the back of the slab-style sculptures. 

This Mesoamerican figure, with its contrast between virility and inevitable mortality, is similar to later memento mori art, like this 18th-century wax Vanitas at the Wellcome Library of Queen Elizabeth I, with half her skull exposed and attacked by bugs, or the 15th-century Braque Triptyph altarpiece, which when folded shows a skull to contrast with the portraits of vibrant holy figures. The visual of our inevitable decay is one that echoes endlessly through art, stone images of death reminding us of each beginning’s end long after their creators have turned to dust. 

article-imageHuastec Life-Death Figure at the Brooklyn Museum (photograph by the author)

article-imageHuastec Life-Death Figure at the Brooklyn Museum (photograph by the author)

article-imageHuastec Life-Death Figure at the Brooklyn Museum (photograph by the author)


Morbid Mondays highlight macabre stories from around the world and through time, indulging in our morbid curiosity for stories from history’s darkest corners. Read more Morbid Mondays>