Death and the Maiden - a Gothic obsession with history

17th October 2012
At this time of the year, what with Halloween and all Saints Day, we have a good opportunity to explore the age-old theme that runs through so much of art and literature: Death and The Maiden.

Before we go any further, though, please note that maidens do not have to look away at this point. No maidens were harmed during the making of this blogpost, which is in fact an exploration into the deeper significance of Halloween.
old medalion carving, skeleton and maid
Hans Schwarz, Death and the Maiden. Augsburg, c. 1520.

Early examples

Death and the Maiden is an archetypal theme in art. It has existed throughout the ages and seems to be something ingrained in our collective consciousness. It has some of its earliest representations, for example, in the Greek myth of Persephone (Proserpine) and Hades.

The story goes that Persephoene a young maiden is in the meadows picking flowers when she is abducted by the God of the underworld, Hades (or Pluto). It is a tale, however, which eventually has a happy ending because Persephone is allowed to return from the underworld for six months every year - thereby heralding the birth of Spring and Summer. It's a reminder that life comes forth from that which is hidden and dark - in other words, from death.
painting of woman in blue-green dress with pomegranate in hand
D.G.Rossetti's Proserpine painted 1874. The pomegranete is the fruit of the underworld.

Medieval times

In medieval Europe, the theme of Death and the Maiden appeared in wood cuts, carvings and sculpture. In these, usually a skeleton or else various versions of the 'Grim Reaper' come wielding scythe and an hourglass - always, in one way or another, overcoming an unfortunate young woman or maiden. It served as material for the 'morality tale.'

It was to remind the congregation of the universality of death, common across all social divides. And from which none, even the most beautiful, wealthy or vain, can escape. It was the Dance Macabre (dance of death) or the Memento Mori (reminder of mortality) motif that coincided with the worst of the plague centuries in Europe. But it also tended to become more and more eroticised over time, as the subjects of death and sexuality became joined in Renaissance poetry and art.

The theme embraced a combination of shared symbolism that has never faded. It has remained visible throughout the European Romantic period. And has endured right through to our current obsession with amorous vampires in literature and on the screen.
old illustration shows woman in elizabethan attir with lute, man profering skull
Elizabethan memeno mori - from Hall's Croft, Stratford.
Notable maidens in real life, meanwhile, celebrated in history for being carried off before their time (usually at the behest of the English royal family), include Joan of Arc and Lady Jane Grey.
medieval illustration with skeletons and people
16th century depiction of the Dance of Death by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch.

Victorian age

Later, the wonderful Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets of Victorian times took their inspiration from fictional characters such as Shakespeare's tragic Ophelia or the young Juliet. And also by Tennyson's poem the Lady of Shalott, in which death and sexual desire are, again, paralleled closely.

For the Victorians, labouring under the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution, the 'Death and the Maiden' theme must have seemed rather like a metaphor for Nature being ravaged and taken from them: a death of innocence, of clean air, green fields, health and tranquility, amid all the disease and squalor of the big cities and factory sprawl. It began to develop a political message.
The seminal painting by G.F.Watts 'Found Drowned' drew on the age-old theme to raise public awareness.
victorian painting of young woman washed ashore drowned. London background, night.

Our own times

Today, the theme continues to resonate with us. It is a reminder not only of the cyclical nature of the seasons and the approach of autumn, but also that the rite of passage from youth to adulthood entails a death of sorts. A corrupting of innocence. If this transition is not fully integrated into the personality the individual can often be plagued by feelings of guilt or disgust at the process of reaching sexual maturity, over-idealising innocence and bewailing its loss.

Once we accept the passage from one state to another as an inevitably and healthy process of change, however, it allows us to evolve and to move forward with the realisation that death in all its varied forms is an essential part of life - that for anything to be born and to live, something must usually die (or undergo a process of sacrifice) in order to sustain it.

Here is a more genteel depiction of the theme, deliberately subverting (I think) the typical image of The Annunciation that we might be used to in art. It was painted by Marianne Stokes (1855 - 1927) - an artist very much in the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites.
painting of woman in bed with apparition with wings
Death and the Maiden - Marianne Stokes 1900.

Franz Schubert - death and the maiden

It takes us nicely - or perhaps not quite so nicely (it is Halloween, after all!) - into a musical exploration of the theme and the song "Der Tod und das Mädchen" (Death and the Maiden) written by Franz Schubert in 1817. The words come from a poem by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815). It is a remarkably short and beautiful piece, and following a brooding and typically Schubertesque introduction on piano, is presented to the listener in two distinct parts - the first being a frantic plea from the maiden that she should be spared, that she is far too young and lovely to die. The second, and featuring one of the most extraordinary and spine-chilling transitions in any piece of music, takes the listener into the serene, comforting words of Death itself, reminding the maiden that he is not wild or fierce, and that she should surrender and sleep softly in his arms.

Sung on this recording by Júlia Várady accompanied on piano by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
painting of Schubert at piano, with ladies nearby singing
Schubert at the Piano by Gustav Klimt.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

You might also like

The Blind Girl - a painting by John Everett Millais
small, circular  image of female face, red hair, eyes closed
Isabella and the Pot of Basil. A Gothic theme.
painting of young woman hugging garden urn or pot
19th-Century Art
Caspar David Friedrich - Die Lebensstufen
painting shows ships at sea and people on shaw, 19th century garb
Historical Novel
'Virgin and the Crab.' A story about Eliabeth Tudor.
book cover text, red against black background