A thousand ways of dying in an Art Museum

Curator: Ricard Mas

Congratulations! If you’re reading this text (and you’re not an artificial intelligence) it means you’re still breathing. So far… because living means inhabiting the brief time between birth and death.
Art is inseparable from human expression. It reveals to us the innumerable discourses and reflections of the soul regarding its limits. This online exhibition is, therefore, limited to showing a few cases from the infinite variety of ways of portraying death, through works of a very different nature, most of which can be visited publicly in the 22 institutions that make up the Art Museums Network of Catalonia.

The people depicted in these works are no longer breathing. Neither are the artists who created them. But they still talk to us. And they ask us a question that goes beyond our concern for finiteness: Am I?

Afraid to Die

The fear of dying keeps us alive. Numerous elements remind us of our finiteness, the most characteristic of which is the skull. Skulls have no face and materialise the loss of identity.

Mengs: Prayer in the Garden

Jesus, both human and divine, aware of his destiny, tells his followers “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death” (Matthew 14:38) and retires to pray in solitude. He asks God up to three times, “Take this cup from me”, but finally accepts his destiny.

Picasso: Memento mori

Saint Bruno, founder of the Carthusian monastic order, is depicted holding a skull. The Carthusian monks recalled their mortal condition every day. The young Picasso, obsessed with death, attaches more importance to the skull, which was real, than to the saint, a bust.


Emblem that is part of a novena (prayers offered on nine consecutive days for a deceased person), in this case, on the limits of medicine: "It is useless for science / To dictate remedies and medicines / That in those critical moments / Neither knowledge nor experience is valid."

De Regoyos: Victims of the Festival

A harsh criticism of bullfighting. If you lived in the country, the first notion of what would happen to a decaying body often came from seeing dead horses abandoned in the open air. Hence the aesthetics of putrefaction among the first avant-garde artists.


In War

After pandemics, war is the leading cause of mass death. Unfortunately, the evolution of science, instead of favouring the human condition, has made it much worse by placing itself at the service of war. The two World Wars are a paradigmatic case of this.

Julio Antonio: Planned Monument to the Heroes of Tarragona

A tribute to the people of Tarragona who resisted the Napoleonic occupation in 1811. The city of Tarragona is holding – in the manner of the Christian “Descents” – one of its dead children. The modern nation-state, born in the wake of the French Revolution, gives meaning to patriotic sacrifices.

Vayreda: Fighting in the Square

This early work was probably inspired by the artist's own experiences during the Third Carlist War (1872-1876). It is interesting to note that, given the inaccuracy of the firearms of the time, the opposing forces confronted each other without taking cover.

Elias: The Walk of Death in Disguise

The First World War was not difficult to predict. This joke, published in L’Esquella de la Torratxa in 1913, was entitled: "Germany ... Here is the enemy". An apocalyptic Kaiser is saying "The day I get up in a bad mood ... there won’t be a rat left in Europe to tell the story."

Fenosa: Lleida

From the First World War on, the civilian population became a prime military target. This contemporary pietà, possibly inspired by a photograph taken by Agustí Centelles, was conceived as a result of the terrible bombing of Lleida by the Condor Legion on 2 November 1937.


With Great Drama

There are works that focus intensively on attracting attention. They are sensationalist, outrageous and intensely dramatic. They are scenic paintings from which one can imagine a certain narrative. And there is nothing more dramatic than a well-tied death.

Coll Pi: See You Later

This genre painting was acquired by Sabadell City Council. The coffin and white flowers indicate a child’s death, the father is saying goodbye while the undertaker has broken the niche to make space. The official holding the coffin lid looks away discreetly.

Masana: Between Life and Death

A mysterious coloured photograph that illustrates a popular saying. A naked young woman struggles between life (the old doctor who takes her pulse) and death (the skeleton that wants to take her). It is also an enviable opportunity to marry Eros and Thanatos, desire and death.

Berga i Boada: Such Are the Consequences... (the stabbing)

The central part of a triptych of customs on gender violence: infidelity at a dance, a stabbing in the home, and an abandoned child. The title, as if it were a tango, alludes to fate, but with moralising connotations.

Vilatobà: Where in Heaven Will I Find You?

Pictorialist photographer and spiritualist activist, Joan Vilatobà from Sabadell achieved critical success with this work, apparently about the terrible loss of a daughter, but which does not avoid surprising erotic connotations.

Beheading of a Woman

Prior to the industrial revolution, “cordel literature” were the most similar form of communication to the mass media. They were narrative poems recited or sung by a person, often blind, and sold in printed folds topped by a woodcut engraving. Many of the subjects involved blood and guts.



The twinning of desire and death became fashionable in Europe during Romanticism. Giacomo Leopardi wrote: "Fratelli, a un tempo stesso, Amore e Morte / Ingenerò la sorte" (Brothers, at the same time, Love and Death / were engendered by destiny). Later, Freud theorised about the two great human desires: that which leads to death and that which drives life, including sexuality.

Pradilla: Doña Juana la Loca (sketch)

Queen Joan of Castile went mad after the sudden death in 1506 of her husband, Philip of Habsburg. Between Burgos, where he died, and Granada, where he was to be buried, the entourage only travelled at night. She never left the coffin and at every stop she kissed her dead husband’s feet.

Smith: Salomé dancing

Lethal birthday. As an act of revenge explained in the Synoptic Gospels, transformed by Oscar Wilde into a delusion of eroticism and death, Salome ends up kissing the decapitated face of John the Baptist. Freud related decapitation to castration. And Smith erases Salome's genitals.

Rabascall: Atomic Kiss

To understand this update of the kiss of death, you need to be at least a “boomer”. Only those who lived through the half a century of the "balance of terror" between the confronting blocs led by the United States of America and the Soviet Union, can understand this apocalyptic anguish.

Nazario: Turandot

Illustration for the comic Turandot based on the eponymous opera by Puccini. Any man wishing to marry the Chinese princess Turandot has to answer three riddles posed by her. If he fails, he will be beheaded. The first victim is a Persian prince.



Some deaths are particularly famous. Most are myths, legends and religious milestones. One of the consequences of death may be oblivion, but in these cases the narrative is so powerful that it has endured for millennia.

Massanet: Pantocrator

With a misleading title – there is no Pantocrator – this composition evokes a storehouse of crucifixes and mannequins in an avant-garde style synthesising De Chirico's metaphysics and surrealism. The death of Jesus, through mediaeval fragments that do not spare the blood.

Borrassà: Panel of “The Slaughter of the Innocent”

According to Matthew 2:16, King Herod, having been told by the Magi that the birth of Jesus could pose a threat, “gave orders to kill all male children aged two and under in Bethlehem and all its territory”. The placidity on the faces of the victims contrasts with the abundant blood.

Ginés: The Innocent Saints

An especially violent and unusual version of the Massacre of the Innocents, in which the mothers, empowered and angry, respond with all their might to the assassins sent by King Herod. Part of a series of explicit sculptures on the same subject.

Sans Cabot: Prometheus

Having stolen the fire from Zeus and handed it over to the mortals, the Titan Prometheus was chained to a mountain. Every day, an eagle ate his liver... but, given his immortal status, he regenerated every night. And so eternity would have passed if Heracles had not set him free.

In Bed

A bed is not just a piece of furniture to sleep on, it is also a place to be born, to die, to reproduce... and to recover from an ailment. Many creators have discovered their vocation during childhood or adolescence after a long illness that forced them to stay in bed.

Rusiñol: Ramon Canudas, Ill in Bed

The engraver Ramon Canudas was one of Santiago Rusiñol's best friends. When Canudas fell ill with tuberculosis, he settled in Sitges. There, sentenced by his illness, Rusiñol painted his portrait. The expression on his face shows a man who has accepted his destiny.

Tàpies: Rinzen (Sudden Awakening)

While recovering from a wasting lung disease at the age of 18, Tàpies rethought his life and discovered his artistic vocation. This enlarged bed on the wall and the chairs that accompany it on the outside invite us to a thought without immovable certainties, where nothing is definitive.

Motu proprio

In ancient classical culture, suicide was often a mechanism for preserving honour and possessions. With the spread of Christianity, the depiction of this practice was largely ignored until Romanticism, when artists once again turned to the subject and even the practice.

Campeny: Lucretia

Lucretia, a Roman noblewoman, was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last king of Rome. He then gathered his family, told them what had happened and, out of honour, committed suicide. Popular indignation caused the king to flee, which led to the establishment of the Republic.

Decombaz: Pocket Watch

The most famous suicide of all time was Cleopatra, Pharaoh of Egypt. Married to Mark Antony, she declared war on Octavian's Rome. Not wishing to be displayed as a trophy on the streets of Rome, she committed suicide. She is depicted being bitten by a viper near her heart.

Garnelo: Suicide for Love

Intense scenic painting with the suicide victim on the floor, in front of the bed; a picture of the loved one on the table, and the relatives, saddened and perhaps ashamed, reading the farewell letter. The fact that the deceased is a woman may indicate a desperate act to avoid dishonour.

Very Still Lifes

Before the emergence of the various photographic techniques and their common use, people had very few ways of preserving the image of their loved ones once they were no longer with them. Whenever possible, an urgent portrait was drawn or painted.

Galofré Oller: Dead Child

In addition to genre, religious and historical paintings, Galofré Oller painted numerous portraits. Infant mortality was very high well into the twentieth century. But what motivated him to portray this dead girl and not use her face to recreate her alive?

Masriera: Portrait of the Deceased Elisa Masriera Manovens

Francesc Masriera painted an urgent portrait of his dead sister by candlelight. The obligatory white flowers indicate purity. The pallor of her face contrasts with her half-open eyes, slight smile and a butterfly, symbol of vital metamorphosis.

Postmortem Portrait of a Girl

With the obligatory whiteness as a symbol of purity in cases of child death, the daguerreotype would replace the painting as an urgent reminder of a deceased person. With the growth of photography, people would have many opportunities to accumulate images and be remembered.

Topographies of memory

Another technique for preserving the memory of the deceased was to make a mask of their face before burying them. In Latin persona is the name given to actors’ masks and is the origin of the word “personality”. The death mask seeks to preserve the exceptionality of an individual who is no longer with us, to summarise an essence in a face.

The Unknown Woman of the Seine

The death mask of the most famous unknown victim in history, a girl who is said to have drowned in the Seine. Its deathly beauty caused great interest among artists. Rusiñol had a copy. It is also the face on cardiopulmonary resuscitation mannequins.

Gargallo: The Mask of Isidre Nonell

The number of mortuary masks of artists preserved in the museums of Catalonia is astonishing. In this case, of particular note is the creator, the sculptor Pau Gargallo, and the fact that Nonell died of typhus just after gaining long-denied artistic recognition.

Matamala: Death Mask of Antoni Gaudí

Antoni Gaudí was knocked over by a tram on 7 June 1926. He died three days later in the Hospital de la Santa Creu. Between tears, the young sculptor Joan Matamala made his death mask. Matamala completed the Façade of the Nativity in the Sagrada Família in 1934.

The Cemetery of Art

Museums are sometimes cemeteries in a literal sense, as they house fragments of the dead enclosed in reliquaries, as well as whole corpses, even if they are mummified. In a more symbolic sense, a museum is a mausoleum of artistic legacies. Nevertheless, the canon favoured by museum collections conditions the freedom of contemporary creativity, which is why the futurist Marinetti advocated their destruction.

The Mummy Nesi

Eduard Toda, Catalonia’s Indiana Jones, donated the only Egyptian mummy in Catalonia to the Víctor Balaguer Museum. Nesi is the mummified body of a child of undetermined sex of about five years old. It carries, inscribed, a protection of the goddess Nut and an invocation to Osiris.

Portella: Reliquary Arm of St. Valerius

This silver arm from Roda de Isábena (Huesca) contains a whole forearm bone bearing a sign with the name of Saint Valerius. The remains of this bishop were believed to have arrived in Roda in 1050. They were eventually shared with Zaragoza.

Güell: Cemetery at Dusk

Landscape painter and writer, Hortensi Güell was a follower of Modest Urgell’s late Romantic style and his melancholy cemeteries at dusk. Due to a love disappointment, Güell decided to end his life by throwing himself into the sea.

Rusiñol: Untitled

Rusiñol mocked everything, even death. In this dish, based on the universe of Senyor Esteve, he denounces the hypocrisy of the survivor. “Wait for me. You unforgettable Esteve” reads the inscription, which contradicts the look of satisfaction on the widower's face. Let her wait...

Boltanski: Reserve of the Dead Swiss

The most mundane bureaucracy also deals with death. Boltanski created a private cemetery/archive based on photographs of the dead taken from the obituary pages of Swiss newspapers. They are normal dead people just like us, which is why they are even more frightening.

Everything that is not dead, but is not alive either...

Can there be life after death? An immaterial existence cannot be described, strictly speaking, as life. So in what words should we describe a life that has crossed the threshold of death? Can an eternal life, free of death, still be called life? What words do not say, perhaps can be read in pictures.

Cao Luaces: Get up and smoke (slogan). Cigarrillos París

"Lazarus, come forth" (John 11: 43). With this forceful instruction, Jesus resurrected the brother of his friends Martha and Mary. José María Cao makes fun about this famous passage by resurrecting a dead man to whom Jesus offers a Paris brand cigarette.

Solà: Aeneas and the Sibyl of Cumae visit the Styx

According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas visited the Sibyl of Cumae on the coast of Campania. Together, they descended to the lake of the Styx and journey to Hades in Charon's boat, with the aim of visiting the hero's recently deceased father.

Wall decoration

The Apocalypse occupies a central position in mediaeval Christian iconography. In the ensemble from Sant Pau de Casserres, the trumpeting angels (four, instead of the obligatory seven) announce Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the dead, prior to the Last Judgment. Fear and hope.


This pre-Romanesque representation of a person praying was brought back to life when it was discovered under Romanesque paintings in the church of Sant Quirze de Pedret. It should be understood in an apocalyptic context: a peacock holds a circle containing the praying person. In Romanesque symbolism, the peacock is a sign of immortality.