All Souls, or in the Anglican tradition The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, is a Christian day of remembrance during which we remember and pray for the departed. We bring flowers, light candles, and spend time thinking about their influence on our own lives.
Halloween is rooted in the ancient Celtictradition of Samhain which marked the end of summer. It was a time of tension between the realms of man and the gods during which propitiation was important to ward off the dangers of the coming winter season. They believed that the souls of the dead would come home, and often a place was set at the table to make them welcome. they made offerings of food, slaughtered animals for food, and lit bonfires on the hilltops to mimic the strength of the summer sun.
Even though these events are separate there is a common theme of death and rebirth between them. All Souls celebrates the deaths of those we have known, and leads our thoughts towards rebirth in the afterlife; Samhain marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, and looked ahead to the rebirth of the land. The Celts may have liked the art ofGiuseppe Arcimboldo, plus this would make a brilliant Halloween mask!
Sometimes Our Thoughts Turn to the Dark Side
Because of Halloween and All Souls, at this time of the year we are more preoccupied with the death than ever. While life is certainly precious, it is our thoughts on death that consume us more. We see it as morbid, wrong, and associate it with loss, pain and fear rather than anything positive. Our experiences and beliefs might account for our individual attitudes towards it. Have you lost someone you loved? Maybe you came close to death through an illness or an accident? Did you witness death in a terrible situation beyond your control? Have you been happily shielded from it because you’re young, or lucky? Do you believe in god? There are many ways to look at this, and so many answers to any questions that we might ask.
The only certainty is that we all have to face it eventually, if not by proxy, then certainly on a one-to-one basis. Maybe it is this sense of certainty that comprises part of what drives us to find ways of representing it. We have a need to confront this inevitability because although we might try to hide away from it, life and death are juxtaposed from the start. My interest – apart from being like every other human who will one day know the dark scythe’s remorseless swing – is in looking at it through the lens of art.
Renaissance Thoughts on Death and the Afterlife
Let’s look at something a century or so older than Arcimboldo’s work. This piece, created byMaster IAM of Zwollec.1480-90, is at first glance this is repellent: grinning skulls, a writhing snake and rotting corpses all twisted about residing in a dusky crypt might not be something that we would put on our walls at home, but thisAllegory of the Transience of Lifeis replete with meaning and soulfulness.