Currently located in the European Collection wing of the AGO, “Death Triumphant” is a small hand-carved wooden sculpture with intricate detailing made by an unknown artist around the 1670s in the Bavaria region of what is now known as Germany. At first glance it is a dressed skeleton at rest inspecting a bow and arrow in with a simple brown varnish; however only after repeated or extended inspections does the viewer realize how far that is far from the truth.
The sculpture is carved out of multiple pieces of linden wood, better known as “basswood” in North America. The tree that the art pieces original materials came from would have been hundreds if not almost one thousand years old. It seems to be composed out of few individual sculpted and carved components, namely the skeleton, bow and arrow, spade, and base platform or ground. Bindings and gluing are not visible, and all necessary surfaces smoothed suggests a (if not soon to be obvious) master of craftsmanship created this piece. Although the AGO’s own photographic representation of the piece shows the wood varnish to be of a dark brown color, it is actually a much lighter yellow or hazel mid-tone with a well-polished, metallic sheen. Under correct lighting the sculpture is almost bronze like as the dark shadowed areas have a slight green hue. This effect increases the openness of the figure’s internals, enhancing the ability to see further details.
The small sculpture (24.0 x 13.5 x 7.5cm) portrays an undead human male standing on uneven ground. The figure’s pose suggests that he’s either looking at a bow and arrow in his left hand or an event unfolding beyond the focal point of the bow in the distance. The subject is tightly gripping the bow and arrow in his left hand, while his right hand lightly rests on a spade that has barely broken the soil beneath his feet. One could hypothesize that the figure is in mid-action glancing at some of the remnants of war before excavating the ground to bury another body. He is acting as an undertaker, and has been burying the dead for so long that he became their familiar. Another but less likely option is that of a “call to arms”, dropping the spade and picking up an instrument of death for further bloodshed. However, by reading the following descriptions, you should be able to reach your own conclusion.
There is a complete detailing of the times known underlying skeletal physiology, from the rib cage up to the coronal suture that is clearly visible on the skeleton’s cranium, carved lightly between the ears. Detailing does not stop there, as even the string of the bow and the feathers of the arrow were whittled down from the wood, while the spade has a T-shaped grip above the wood handle. The most surprising and non-obvious elements of the art piece are what seem to be the ragged, tattered clothing and a cowl that the skeleton is wearing. It is actually the person’s sloughed skin and face torn and distraught from use, just given the impression of garments by the artist at first glance. Skin on the arms drape like stretched sleeves, skin folded over itself between the hand and arm made to look like leather gloves, circular stress holes reveal the pelvic bone and loose skin make up the shorts… and even more skin above the ankles fold over to look like tall boots with turned over tops, typical for fashion in the sixteen hundreds period of Middle Europe. The ear keeps the remaining skin attached to the skull while skin normally attached to the jaw flaps loosely above the chest. The figure adorns a tied sash made of unknown material, either the figure’s pre-mortem clothing or the skin of another unknown individual. There are several snake heads protruding from the torso, the tail of one twisting its way through the neck into the mouth of the skeleton to create a quasi-tongue. Either intestines or snakes hang from a hole in the figures crotch. Only the base is roughly carved with etched lines, presumably to give contrast to the figure above.
The end meaning behind this art piece is somewhat fuzzy, since no further information was provided by the AGO. The artist, exact date, and location are unknown and much of the following research would be theoretical and speculation, thus, the only conclusion I could come up with at the time of writing is that the art piece was meant as a reminder of a large tragedy such as a plague or war. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was memorabilia, but more of an old personally interpretive semi-religious “shock” art to remind the future of what events have passed and its aftereffects on seemingly unrelated individuals. Detailed theories and interpretations for a future post.