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Images of the King of the World

 Intimate Portrayals of DeathNecromance: Intimate Portrayals of Death by Leilah Wendell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

New Orleans’ House of Death published its most beautiful book in 2003. Necromance: Intimate Portrayals of Death presents 60 full-color plates and an equal number of black-and-white illustrations of Death as lover, philosopher, and king of the world. It’s an impressive collection, spanning the globe from Russia to Mexico and striding across 500 years of art history.

For a book that limits its subject to one figure, the depictions are surprisingly varied. Death is most often cast as a skeleton, although there are several appearances by the Angel of Death as a gracious fleshed figure, both male and female. Of course there are cemetery monuments: a topless woman wrestles with death in Genoa, a shrouded skeleton steps out of the greenery in Köln, and an angel weeps over the dismantled altar of life in Colma, California.

A couple of contributors to Morbid Curiosity appear in Necromance’s pages. Erik Quarry provided the book’s cover image, along with a pastel love scene and a linoleum print that once graced the magazine’s pages. Leilah Wendell includes some of her own ornate collagework, oil paintings, and sculpture, some of which appeared in the earliest issues of this magazine.

Some of the rarest images in Necromance intrigued me the most. I was blown away by the Slovenian postage stamp featuring a skeleton kissing a prone nude woman. Also memorable is the vintage postcard depicting a woman imprisoned within Death’s ribcage. One of my most favorite images is Theda Bara gazing down on the skeleton beside her as if she’d pleased with her meal.

The image that touched me the most is titled “Death in Flanders” and dated 1917. A skeleton sits atop a mound of dead soldiers, burying its face in its fingers as if weeping. If that doesn’t capture the senseless losses of war, nothing does.

Because the book is self-published, it contained several flaws that annoyed me. There’s a typo in the introduction. Not all of the images are dated, even when those dates might be easy to obtain, like Vernet’s painting of “Death as the Black Night” or Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of “Death Staying the Hand of the Sculptor.” Many times I would like more information about the images: where did Petrarch’s “Triumph of Death” first appear? What is “Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children” – and beyond the scope of this book, how can I get a copy? The index of images lists them by title, but not by artist. However, those quibbles are minor and easy to overlook in the face of the gorgeous reproductions and the glorious variety of depictions contained in this little book. Let’s face it: you’re not buying this book for the text.

This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #8.

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