Many artists are drawn to images of death to express a process of reckoning with the impermanence of human life. Such expressions are visualised in a vast spectrum of ways, veering from the very concrete, blunt, or obvious (for me Hirst’s skull seems to grace this end of things no matter how much he likes to mystify his objects), to the metaphorical, the subtle allegory, or the palimpsest of history. Nothing speaks with a more searing combination of brevity and expansiveness than the ancient Moirai, or ”apportioners”, the three female figures who were said to spin, measure, and cut the thread of life between them; “To these powerful goddesses was assigned the imperative influence which governed all things on earth, and decided the lot of man.”
The Moirai, or Three Fates, have been re-manifested in European history numerous times, evolving from Antiquity through Pagan and later Christian contexts, and into an increasingly secular, existential vein. Petrarch’s late Trionfi poems, in which the Fates feature as the third of six ‘triumphs’, offer a strongly rooted humanist point of contact with the cultural and societal questioning of death. The same removal from religious significances is expressed by visual art from the later Middle Ages, such as on a large-scale tapestry panel now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Here the Three Fates appear in late fifteenth-century courtly dress comprised of richly brocaded fabrics gathered with golden chains and died leather belts, and they stand on the no-less-beautiful figure of Chastity lying across the lower registers of the panel against a background of mille-fleurs. At some point in its history, of course, the tapestry was removed from its original context, elided from its intended location and from the larger work from which it originates. Nevertheless this was courtly rather than spiritual art; It no longer relies purely on religious symbolism or ideology – the need to be a devout and goodly Christian – but instead communicates a religion of humanity, based on the desperate need to make each day count towards the enlightenment of our so-called civilisation, and the happiness of our closest relations, as we hang delicately from the fine thread of existence. The visual pun offered through a depiction of worked thread in the medium of a woven textile would also have injected the imagery of this tapestry in particular with incredible humour, of a type well-understood by elite medieval audiences. But, it plays too on the inevitable fate – and control? – of the tapestry weaver (as a representative of human craft more generally), that with the steady manifestation of the woven image their life and ours is being counted off. Time marked by the weaving process in this way ties the V&A tapestry (and others of its type) directly back to Penelope, sitting at her golden loom and structuring her denial of death in gilt thread.
Obsessively questioning, and acutely sensitive to pathetic fallacy, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes places his own version of the three demonic Fates in a human vortex, spinning over a burnt and barren landscape chillingly darkening before our eyes. His experience of their allegorical significance was both universal in its fear, and very private in its intended audience, communicable only to himself as he painted the figures a fresco across the walls of his own house. A tiny, globular manikin-like figure appears as if squeezed dangerously by the grip of Clotho (reminiscent perhaps of Fay Wray in the hands of the villainised Kong), not spinning but extracting the desperately short thread of life from its navel.
Scholars have found great difficulty interpreting this picture because of the unusual presence of a fourth figure at the very front of the floating group, with a face that bears no obvious relation to the Fates or their prey, Chastity. Interpreted by some as Prometheus, who was left bound on a mountain peak to be disgorged by eagles in recompense for stealing fire from Zeus, its overriding effect is one of tethered awkwardness, of writhing limb-locked captivity. We should be careful not to romanticise this figure, seemingly male within an otherwise all-female grouping, as a representation of Goya himself. Nevertheless, it may have manifested (to the artist’s introverted mindscape) a personal, human reality caught between the sisters as they run their haggard hands roughly over life.
In contemporary visual culture, artists diverse have utilised death (and Death) for both their medium and their message (it is pretty hackneyed to bring up Damien Hirst but he is ineloquently obsessed by the subject and is foremost in the public eye amongst his generation of artists). Yet often woven through their work are the shadows, revisions, or even wholesale reuse, of the elegiac figure types of the Three Fates, appropriated as they have been for millennia to cut at the quick of our limited time on the Earth.
 E. J. Burrow, The Elgin Marbles, London, 1817, p. 209