Symbols of death help articulate some of the less tangible qualities of life: Collecting the Macabre

Often manifested in allegorical representations of death appearing as a dancing skeleton
By , Coin World
Published : 09/19/14
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Editor’s note: In the October monthly Coin World cover feature, several staff writers embraced the spirit of Halloween and highlighted the spookier items in numismatics. This is one of a series of articles from the Collecting the Macabre feature that will appear online at CoinWorld.com. 

Read more from the series:

Artists have long used symbols of death to help articulate some of the less tangible qualities of life.  

This is often referred to as the macabre, perhaps best manifested in allegorical representations of death appearing as a dancing skeleton. 

The depiction — and celebration — of this admittedly creepy subject is relatively recent and traces its origins back to the late Medieval and early Renaissance era.  

It’s easy to imagine why, as the Black Death provided grim reminders of mortality during the mid-14th century. It killed roughly one third to one half of Europe’s population at the time, and death became an uncomfortably familiar part of life for Europeans. 

The visual representation of death helped people visualize something intangible, but something that affects us all. 

Today in the United States, this sense of the creepy and spooky is best exemplified by Halloween and its varied traditions, which today use a healthy dose of humor to confront the power of death. 

Around the world

Collectors today have a wide range of material to select from when collecting the macabre. 

A circulating coin is an object that has to represent a nation’s ideology and find acceptance in commerce to be effective. It has to appeal to a wide audience, so depictions of the most obviously macabre subjects are rarely found on officially issued money. 

However, artists have for hundreds of years adapted and transformed money using artistic ingenuity. From coin carving that dramatically changes a coin’s initial design in the tradition of hobo nickel carving, to artists using pen and ink to transform paper money, the artistic tradition of using the macabre to depict universal themes continues today. 

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