While you may associate skulls with Halloween or Hamlet, the truth is that for centuries Catholics have used skulls and skeletons in sacred art and architecture. In fact there are several Catholic chapels around the world (like the Sedlec Ossuary in Poland, pictured above) that are decorated entirely with human bones! However, because many of us still associate skulls with the macabre or the occult it can be jarring to see them used in a Catholic setting.
That was the case for a listener named Lilia who called in to Go Ask Your Father™ to ask if it was OK to have a Rosary with skulls on it.
Monsignor Stuart Swetland explained, “Yes, because if you look at a lot of Christian art about the saints and about the life of our Lord, if you look at the many crucifixes or depictions of the crucifixion you’ll see a skull with a cross of bones depicted. Now, what does that represent? It represents death and mortality.”
“Jesus really did die on the Cross,” Msgr. Swetland emphasized. “Jesus was like us in all things but sin. He had a human mind, a human will, a human body, and a human soul. And He had a human death. He died. But we know the rest of the story is that He was raised up bodily. So the skull has that first connotation of mortality.”
Msgr. Swetland told Lilia that he recently went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, where he saw several famous pieces of religious artwork – many of which included depictions of skulls.
“There are several depictions of St. Jerome and several depictions of St. Mary Magdalene, and in almost all of those depictions they have the skull there somewhere in the picture,” he explained. “Because for both St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalene, who are depicted usually in penitential garb or penitential pose, one way to depict that is the skull, which reminds us that we are to recognize that we are limited beings. We are only here for a little bit of time. We are a pilgrim people passing through, and we are meant for eternity.”
There is a Latin phrase “memento mori,” which means “remember your death,” that has been a part of Christian tradition for centuries. It was a greeting used by the Hermits of St. Paul of France in the 17th century, and is even the theme of a recent journal by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul.
Msgr. Swetland explained why this focus on death and mortality is a helpful practice for growing in holiness, saying, “When we think and meditate upon our mortality, we recognize the reality that we know not the hour or the day when Christ will call us home. So we always should be prepared to meet the Lord.”