Christie’s auction house is presenting Exclusive prints from the collection of Giancarlo Beltrame ‘Death and Desire’, a themed online sale which will feature old master prints, alongside a few 19th and 20th century prints, to coincide with Dia de Los Muertos and Halloween.
The prints are from the collection of the late Dr. Giancarlo Beltrame, an avid collector of scientific books and of prints, was obsessed by the eternal themes of Love and Death. The walls in his house in Vicenza were teeming with depictions of nudes and skeletons, skulls and bones, dragons and witches, monsters and martyrs.
The Beltrame Collection offers a fascinating survey of memento mori, Vanitas images, depictions of witchcraft, monsters and dragons, Dances of Death and related imagery and includes prints of the 15th to the 20th century.
As Halloween looms, specialist Tim Schmelcher tells the stories behind some of prints depicting Death.
The inscription on the pedestal could be roughly translated as: ‘We all have to die, the rich mingled with the poor’. This anonymous and very rare print has an oddly humorous side: as they reveal a stone tondocarved with dead bodies, the winged skeleton in the front kneels down in admiration of this monument to Death, while the other two skeletons lean on it, seemingly in pleasant conversation. Their attitude is that of two gentlemen cracking a joke in a bar.
Ensor’s web-footed Death hovering over a shrieking crowd of people is a caricature of the traditional iconography of the Triumph of Death. As in the medieval tradition of the Danse Macabre, he is the great leveller who reaps all of humanity, irrespective of status, wealth, power or moral virtue. The crowd includes all strata of society: from peasants and soldiers to monks, judges and kings.
In his depiction of this teeming mass, Ensor took inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd, in which the author presents his vision of mankind being blinded by mundane concerns and desires. With characteristically savage humour, Ensor turns this into a burlesque comedy of Death — witness the glutton vomiting on passers-by while behind him two women feast. Distracted by vice and excess, mankind is oblivious to the mortal threat that will inevitably unite us all. This is not a formal procession — the crowd rushes forward as an endless mass of humanity hurtling towards its unavoidable fate.
A grinning skeleton, crowned with a winged hourglass, sits on drapery above a pile of war trophies: pieces of body armour, a shield and a sword, but also an Imperial orb and a crown, a mitre, legal documents, a book and a painter’s palette. With an arrow the skeleton points at a stone tablet, into which the following words are cut: ‘OMNIA MIHI SUBDITA’. Death declares his rule: ‘Everything succumbs to me’.
But as the spoils at his feet imply, it is not just all living things that must die. Power and glory, military might and honour, art and learning will also perish under his rule. This is Death Triumphant, Lord over all beings and things. As so often with images of Death, the symbols and allegories mix and overlap — the arrow in his quiver is inscribed ‘Futurum’, the one pointing at the tablet ‘Presens’, and a third arrow pointing at the ground ‘Preteritum’. He is also Father Time, the master over future, present and past.
All this is executed in dark, velvety mezzotint on a large, imposing plate. Ridinger’s Rule of Death is one of the finest achievements of mezzotint printing in Germany, one of the most grandiose images of Death in print, and a great rarity.
All Images © Christies