What Is a Winged Death's Head?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2019
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A winged death's head is a motif which is commonly found on gravestones, especially those dating to around the 17th and 18th centuries. This motif also appears in some works of art, either as a central element or as an accent piece. The meaning of the winged death's head is variable, depending on the context, but it is safe to assume that it is meant to be a memento mori, reminding the viewer of the inevitability of death.

The crudest winged death's heads are simply skulls with empty sockets and grinning teeth, with wings etched on either side of the skull. In some cases, crossed bones may support the skull. More sophisticated versions feature skulls with more details, or heads with more flesh on them. In some cases, the head may be mounted over a heap of bones, or a bag which clearly contains human remains. The wings may be large or small, ornate with fine detail or very simple, all depending on the taste of the creator.


For some people, the winged death's head is simply a reminder of the speed at which death can approach, with the added message that time flies. It can also represent the idea of the flight of the soul, especially when carved into a headstone, with the wings implying a passage to heaven. Others think of the symbol as a visual representation of the death of the body accompanied by the regeneration of the spirit, suggesting that the soul lives on even after the body is gone.

Such motifs are very common on Puritan tombs, because the Puritans disliked visual representations of religious themes like crosses, angels and saints. As late as the 19th century, people also simply had a taste for the macabre in grave decoration, which explains why one sees giant angels of death looming over graves in older cemeteries. The winged death's head would have served as a simple and eloquent reminder of the presence of death.

In works of art like paintings, the winged death's head may be incorporated into a larger allegorical story which unfolds on the canvas. Some artists have also included fresh takes or parodies on the theme, like death's heads of animals, or entire winged skeletons. While these themes might seem a bit dark and intense to modern viewers, death was a common and accepted theme in art well through the 19th century, and in addition to being used to represent literal death, death also symbolized time, regeneration, and a variety of other themes.


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Post 4
@jmc88 - That is a good point to make. The Puritans were a deeply religious group that completely sought fundamentalist purification of their members, which were separated from the Catholic Church.

Unlike the Catholic Church, Puritans did not really have official confessionals and there were possibilities that a person may not be forgiven for their sins, even if they may be considered minor.

That being said when the winged deaths head was used as a warning it was supposed to mean that people must live a virtuous Puritan life or else be damned for eternity.

I am really wondering why exactly though they decided to pick a warning as macabre as this as I see that people had a fascination with it as being way too simple of an answer. Why did they have this fascination to begin with and when did it all start?

Post 3

@matthewc23 - With a lot of tombstones back in the old times, those that could afford them would a lot of times pick something to be put on their tombstone, whether it be an a saying or something that could be used to remind people to cherish life, like you said.

Most of the time the winged deaths head would be put on one's tombstone at request of the family, or even simply by the tomb stone maker, say if they felt someone died young or may have even wasted their life.

However, there are a lot of instances in which people did request this to be put on their own tombstone as a reminder for people to enjoy life and

to not waste it.

Although this sounds like something any dying person may say, there were a lot of people during this time that felt a wasted and an unholy life meant eternal damnation for the person and this was sometimes used for religious warnings to make sure people know that death can strike at any time and they better be in good graces with God.

Post 2
@Izzy78 - You are absolutely correct. For a lot of groups of people back then a person's grave stone was supposed to reflect their entire life and be able to give people that viewed their gravestone the opportunity to reflect on the person.

That is why gravestones usually had the amount of days, months, and years the person lived as well as something like "loving husband" or "mother" listed by their name.

Although these are still common today, these are left as reminders to show what the person did in life. Another example would be a soldiers marker or someone actually having their occupation on their tombstone.

I really have to wonder though as far as the winged deaths head whether or not a person could request this to be put on their tombstone, as they may have viewed life as a short venture?

Post 1

Wow, I have to say I have never been to a cemetery and seen a skull with wings on a grave marker, but it seems to me like these things do exist and it I would like to see one.

I know this statement may sound a bit weird, but people around this time had such a fascination and fear with death and viewed it and dealt with it in a different way than they did today.

Back then it seemed more like a religious experience than a loss and these types of things were reflected in the gravestones, as they usually included some pretty intricate designs using tools that would take a lot of work in order to do by hand.

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