Calavera: Sugar Skull
Skull Imagery in Mexico and its History
Skull imagery has a long history dating back to the traditions of pre-Columbian civilizations. The Aztecs had several festivals of remembrance where they would worship the Goddess Mictecacihuatl, ruler of the afterlife and keeper of the dead. Mictecacihuatl was often represented as a skeleton, adorned with a crown of flowers and skulls. For many pre-Columbian cultures, human skulls or skull motifs were used as decoration on walls as a sacrificial offering to the gods. These are commonly referred to by the Nahuatl term Tzompantli. Some of these, such as the Mayan Chichen Itzá Tzompantli in Yucatán, and the Aztec Huey Tzompantli in Mexico City, remain to this day and can be viewed by visitors.
Another motif that may have influenced calavera imagery as we know it today is likely a type of European art known as Danse Macabre. These paintings and engravings, often featuring dancing skeletons, were meant to represent the inevitability of death and were used as decorations in churches across Europe. It is probable that the Danse Macabre motifs were brought over by Spanish missionaries and later fused with Indigenous skull imagery.
Sugar Skulls as Holiday Decorations
In pre-Columbian times, for festivals associated with remembering the dead, many indigenous peoples would display decorated skull figurines, often made out of clay. During the 1500s, these skull figurines began being produced using clay molds. Later, following colonization, convents and churches continued the tradition of producing these skulls with molds, but began utilizing sugar instead of clay. In the 17th century, sculptures made out of sugar using a special paste known as alfeñique, became popular in Spain, and later spread to its colonies. These techniques were then used in the production of sugar skulls.
The paste, made of eggs, powdered sugar, lemon juice, and plant extracts, was poured into the clay mold to make the figurine. This would then take a day to dry. Once dry, the figurine is assembled and decorated with brightly colored icing, and shiny colored paper is used for the eyes and forehead. These production methods continue to be used by Mexican artisans to this day, though industrial production methods are also widely used. Edible skulls are also commonly made out of chocolate and amaranth.
Today, the sugar skull has many uses, including as sweet treats, or as gifts for children, but the main use is decorative. Sugar skulls are traditionally placed as a decoration on top of the Ofrenda, or Altar de Muertos, as a symbol of remembrance. It is common to write the name of a deceased loved one on the paper part of the figurine’s forehead. The sugar skulls placed atop the altar are often only consumed at the conclusion of the holiday.
There is even a sugar skull fair called the Feria del Alfeñique, celebrated every year in October in the city of Toluca, famous for its beautiful sugar skulls. There, artisans come from all over the country to display and sell their unique sugar skull creations, and one can find not only calaveras made of sugar, but also caramel, chocolate, dulce de leche, tamarind, and even gummy calaveras.
Calaveras in Popular Culture
As Day of the Dead evolved into a national holiday, it became intrinsically tied with Mexican culture. The skull motifs and dark humor that the holiday embodies were embraced by satirists, and artists as a cultural reference. Of these, none is more well known than cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada. Posada’s work was heavily satirical and employed quirky skull characters in funny situations, drawing heavily from calavera imagery. His drawings would make fun of everyday situations, often taking aim at the excesses of the upper classes, and satirize political figures.
His most famous character is La Catrina, a parody of a 19th-Century upper-class Mexican woman drawn in the calavera style. The character was quickly embraced, during Posada’s lifetime, as an embodiment of Death herself, and thus as a symbol of the Day of the Dead holiday. La Catrina can be seen in various holiday decorations, such as paper maché figurines, wood carvings, and pottery. Most famously, the character is featured in Diego Rivera’s mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central”.
Posada’s art style continues to be heavily influential for the holiday’s aesthetics to this day. Public ofrendas often draw heavily from his art style, as calavera-style drawings and sculptures of deceased Mexican artists, writers, and historical figures are put on display for the holiday. People in La Catrina costumes can be found at most public festivities. The recent Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City draws heavily from Posada’s artwork, featuring floats and puppets depicting Calavera characters. Paper maché figurines and wooden carvings, in the Posada style, are also holiday decoration favorites. They are often sold at arts markets during the holiday season, and commonly depict well known people, characters, and archetypes as calaveras. In addition, a calavera art festival is celebrated annually in the city of Aguascalientes, Posada’s birthplace, during the last week of October. The festival features calavera-inspired public art displays, dancers, plays, and street performances.
As the holiday spreads to the United States, so too do depictions of calavera imagery in American pop culture. This can be seen not only in animated movies such as The Book of life and Coco, but also in video games such as 1998’s Grim Fandango, which is an homage to Posada’s work.