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Why are Saints Sometimes Pictured with Skulls?

Why are saints sometimes pictured with skulls?

 

Does that mean they are preoccupied with death? There sure seems to be an awful lot of that in old art. God bless you and your ministry.

for post on moritificationYes, indeed, skulls make frequent appearances in Christian art, even today. I can understand your question about this practice; because, putting skulls everywhere can seem kind of morbid – especially for those of us who live in a secular, consumer society which systematically avoids thinking about the deeper truths like death and what happens after death.

A Healthy Skull

When Christian art depicts skulls near a saint, it symbolizes the saint’s wisdom and prudence. The skull represents, vividly and compellingly, human mortality. We are all going to die, and death may come at any time. Keeping this fundamental truth in mind helps us live each day more meaningfully. Instead of storing up riches and over-indulging in pleasures, we choose to live for the mission Christ has given us, for spreading his Kingdom and deepening our relationship with God. That Kingdom and that relationship will endure beyond death, so investing in them is the wise thing to do. The saints have their priorities straight. They are living “in the light of eternity”, as an ancient phrase puts it. The skull, far from indicating a morbid preoccupation with death, is a symbol of the wisdom that comes from living in the light of the truths that Jesus revealed to us; it helps us live each day to the full because it reminds us of the bigger picture.

Saint Catherine of Siena for post on skulls in artwork (memento mori)
Wisdom in Action

Skulls aren’t just artistic symbols, however. Through the centuries many saints, canonized and non-canonized, have kept close to them some kind of reminder of their mortality. It may have been a real skull, or it may have been something else – flowers, since they fade so quickly, have been used in this way; a little sculpture of a skull or a picture of a skull sometimes was enough; Pope Alexander VIII even had the great baroque artist, Bernini, sculpt a mini, marble coffin for him when he was chosen as pope. He kept this on his desk to remind him that he would some day pass away and have to give an account to the Lord about how he lived his papal ministry. St. Elizabeth of Hungary used to use a simple coffin as a container for all the goods and riches she would gather and give away to the poor. This reminded her of the passing nature of earthly things.


Memento Mori

In our tradition of Catholic spirituality, these types of practices are referred to as memento mori, a Latin phrase that means “remembrance of death” or “remembrance of mortality.” The practice of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is one of these.  And, in general, taking time to reflect on our mortality has proven to be a powerful and healthy impetus for spiritual growth. St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises include a meditation on death as a central contemplation during the First Week. And every time we pray the Hail Mary, we finish with a prayer that reminds us that our earthly journey will indeed come to an end, sooner or later.

I thank you for your question because it has given all of us an opportunity to reflect on one of the realities that can help inoculate us against some of the secularist sicknesses polluting our present culture.

God bless you!
In Him, Fr John

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Art for this post on why saints are sometimes pictured with skulls: Detail of San Francisco Meditando de Rodillas (Saint Francis Meditating on His Knees), El Greco, Ca. 1586-1592; Partial restoration detail of Saint Catherine of Siena, Francesco Vanni, 17th century; Death Comes to the Banquet Table (Memento Mori), Giovanni Martinelli, circa 1635; all PD-US author's life plus 100 years or less; all Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • Paula

    I see skulls on t-shirts for people of all ages. I perceived it as Bad and evil. Should I change my thinking and just let it remind me of my mortality???

    • LizEst

      Paula – There is no way of knowing why these people choose to put these skulls on t-shirts, though I would be inclined to think they do not do that to remind them of their own mortality. That said, those t-shirts can still have a salutary effect for you since you can now choose to have them remind you of your mortality. It might even serve as a springboard for engaging others in conversation about such things and for evangelization. God love you!

  • Daniel H Benson

    The skull symbolizes not only death but judgement, hell and condemnation Under God’s perfect Righteous Law. Who of us can stand? We have all lied, stolen, used God’s name in vain, dishonored our parents in our hearts, we are murderers and adulterers. If we try to justify ourselves before God by our keeping the law we all will fall, “for whoever (strives) to keep the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” Our justification before God is not our good works. My righteousness even at it’s best is like filthy rags compared to God’s righteousness. “For by works of the law no one will be justified in his (God’s) sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin and judgement. That is why we all fear death. Death equals judgement.
    Our salvation is not in works but by Faith in the Finished works of Christ on the cross. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
    Grace is a free gift; a gift that can not be earned. If I have to work for grace, it’s no longer grace but an obligation like wages for a task. But if we stop striving and enter God’s rest, by faith through grace. we repent of self righteousness deeds to justify us, God by our faith gives us His prefect Righteousness as a free gift of faith, Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, before Abraham had done anything. The Holy Spirit the we receive by faith leads us to obedience. It’s not the obedience that leads us to righteousness. Since our salvation, is no longer dependent on our works but totally on what Jesus did on the cross, we can say with assurance, Oh death where is thy sting? That is Gospel, the good news, there is no more cleansing, judgement, punishment or suffering, Christ balanced the scales for me on the cross. This sets me free from the law of sin and death. Once I fully receive total substantiation by Christ alone, I am free to serve freely. As Christ’s gift to us is by grace alone, I serve gracefully not for my benefit but solely for the receiver, my gift of service is truly a free gift of grace. Something all other religions have no concept of and thus deceive it’s followers to judgement.

  • Mart1963

    Matthew 23:27

    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are
    like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the
    inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.

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