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.

Yes, 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


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.

Profile photo of Fr. Bartunek

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.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage