Painting the Bones – An Artist’s Guide to the Death Card


With the first crocuses out in the garden, it’s a little odd to find my thoughts centering on death – and the tarot Death card. The latter is often depicted as a skeleton wielding a scythe and cutting down King and commoner alike. Given that the first tarot decks appeared shortly after the Black Death raged through Europe, this view of Death is not surprising. Today, however, most people read the card not as death, but as change and transformation.

From the point of view of an artist ‘painting the bones’, I take a slightly different view. For me the Death card is an initiatory figure, challenging me to strip my thoughts to the bone, to discover what I am really about, and to rid myself of all the dross in my life. After the Hanged Man’s lessons, where we’ve had to reverse all our set views – everything we’ve been taught – we are ready for a more profound rethink. Thus we arrive at the Death card, Major Arcana number XIII.

When I painted this image I wanted it to be quite confrontational. So, in my deck, death is fearful indeed, an imposing black figure with red eyes burning in its white skull. Behind the figure is a wall of fire – which I saw as cold, not hot. To complete the image, I softened its impact with the opened cocoon, the diamond, and butterfly to indicate rebirth. Later I discovered that in shamanic lore, the initiators are often experienced as putting the dismembered body of the initiate into fire (after which the successful trainee is re-membered, emerging as a fully-fledged shaman). This gives yet another dimension to the card, which, at least for the layman, is probably the most feared of all tarot cards.

For me, then, the image of Death, and thus Death itself, is the next step towards a greater life. For those who have moved into his realm, I salute you, and honour your advance along the path. As the crocuses open their delicate petals after what seems like a very long winter, I acknowledge Death as a necessary part of that rebirth. diamond painting shop

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