The living, grinning skeletons we immediately associate today with Day of the Dead festivities have roots in a little-known source: La portentosa vida de la muerte, or The Astounding Life of Death, one of the first Mexican novels, written in 1792 by Joaquin Bolaños, a Franciscan priest from Zacatecas.
An allegory exploring man’s knowledge of death at the time, it follows the journey of Death, the skeletal daughter of Adam and Eve, who falls in love several times but whose husbands keep dying off on their wedding nights. The 18 illustrations that show Death as a bony baby, a bride, a triumphant ruler, and many other roles, are the creations of Mexican engraver Francisco Agüera Bustamante. A skilled craftsman who worked on many books in the 18th century, Bustamante produced no other illustrations like those in Bolaños’s text. This particular comic series was revolutionary in a period when religious tracts and government publications dominated.
“This is certainly the work he is most remembered for, and the most influential,” Rick Stattler, Director of Printed & Manuscript Americana at Swann Auction Galleries told Hyperallergic. “The Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913) gets much of the credit for the Mexican Day of the Dead iconography, using skeletons for satirical commentary on the politics of his day, but Agüera is credited [with] its foundation.” The auction house is offering a rare, original copy of the book in a forthcoming sale of printed Americana on Thursday, April 27. Stattler only knows of 17 first editions that have survived in libraries, including the New York Public Library.
When it first emerged in the late 18th century, La portentosa vida de la muerte was a victim of censorship by the Inquisition for its irreverent treatment of death, and copies were subsequently burned. But these early animated skeletons stand as precedents for the imagery that followed in the literary magazine El Calavera, founded in 1847, and the famous satirical caricatures created by Posada in the late 19th century, as author Regina M. Marchi writes. Agüera himself may have drawn inspiration from European prints depicting the “Dance of Death,” according to researcher Elizabeth C. DeRose, although representations of death in Mexican funerary sculpture were a more likely source. There is also a long and rich history of representations of skeletons and skulls in many ancient Mesoamerican cultures.
“While this book seems to have been regarded as an oddity in its own time, it’s gradually become recognized for its influence on Mexican culture,” Stattler told Hyperallergic, noting that Zacatecas launched a Día de los Muertos festival honoring Bolaños and his publication in 2011. The book’s emergence at auction today provides a rare opportunity to examine its cryptic images that have been interpreted and transformed over centuries as they worked their way into popular tradition.
Correction: A previous version of this article suggested that Joaquin Bolaños’s La portentosa vida de la muerte (“The Astounding Life of Death”) featured the earliest known Day of the Dead imagery, but it is one of the earliest known examples. We apologize for this error; the article has been revised to make this clearer and accurate.