The bubonic plague (Black Death) devastated Europe resulting in demographic and economic disasters inciting a collective fear of dying. Death became the great equalizer despite social and economic position. This terror reached the Spanish colonies creating several cultural developments. The Danse Macabre, death in art, religious relics, and the iconic use of calaveras (skulls) were some. In Mexico, the Danse Macabre was represented as La Loca de la Muerte y los Vanidosos still practiced today in Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas. European woodcuts and murals in new churches depicted death as all-victorious and powerful.
By the 1700s Death, personified as a woman, was central in Holy Week, paraded on Good Fridays on a decorated berth through cities and towns of New Spain. For funerals of royalty or important members of the church, Death appeared as La Portentosa or La Reina Muerte seated on an elaborate catafalque proving her fatal power over all. By the mid-18th century people realized that death was a result of disease, malnutrition and old age – not a punishment from God. However, starting in the late 19th century, José Guadalupe Posada, master Mexican printer and lithographer, reanimated Portentosa. His calaveras became classic worldwide images tied to Mexican traditions of Día de los Muertos. Posada’s calaveras are a social commentary, political satire and assertions of the egalitarian principles that Mexicans attribute to death itself. His calaveras marked the path for present Día de los Muertos skulls and skeletons with grins, cocky attitudes, and ability to portray human activities. They reflect the Mexican understanding of Death in a satirical and humorous way without angst, fear or judgment.