Harlequin, Grim Reaper, scary clown, Commedia dell'Arte, painting

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Harlequin, Grim Reaper, clown scary, CommediadellArte painting: The Grin Reaper
Harlequin, Grim Reaper, clown scary, Commedia dell' Arte

Harlequin and Grim Reaper - Scary clowns from the Commedia dell'Arte to the Harlequinade


Death is often personified by the Grim Reaper. From the 15th century onwards it is shown as a skeletal figure carrying a scythe sometimes wearing a black cloak and hood. With the scythe he was to reap (cut free) the souls from the bodies and had to guide them to the world of the dead. There are many tales about how the victims tried to bribe, trick, or outwit him in order to stay alive. But he is often described as carrying out the command of a higher order, thus having no influence on the person's fatal destiny.
In the French medieval Passion plays Hellequin was an emissary of the devil, who - just like the grim reaper - chased the damned souls of evil people to Hell. He mostly wore a red costume and a black mask, two colours still attributed to a Harlequin’s costume today. The origins of the name Harlequin are uncertain, but it is likely that the Hellequin was a predecessor of todays Harlequin. Another hellish origin may be found in Dante's Inferno, Canto XXI, XXII and XXIII where one of the devils is called Alichino.
The Arlecchino became a stock character of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte, a comical and very popular type of play in the 16th century. His role was that of a simpleton and servant who moved over the stage performing acrobatic flips and jumps. His simplicity is such that he produces almost surrealist comical situations. He thinks of himself as dead or pretends to be a doctor prescribing obviously ridiculous and fatal 'remedies'. The character was very popular and became the main protagonist in the French Harlequinade, a 19th century slapstick adaptation of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte. In the Harlequinade he was a more romantic character not only performing artistic tricks. He also had magic powers like changing objects or whole sceneries (i.e. stage props) or letting the chair disappear underneath the person sitting on it, simply by hitting or touching the objects with his wooden wand (by the slap of his stick = slapstick).
The Harlequin as 'The Grin Reaper' represents a sinister and scary mixture of the above concepts: Devil’s servant and grim reaper, surrealist clown and slightly mad fool, acrobat and magician. The Harlequin in the 'Batman' comic series represents a similarly ambiguous blend of characteristics.

Famous artists with paintings of the Grim Reaper and Harlequins

Antoine Watteau, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Albrecht Dürer and in many medieval Works of religious Art.

To learn more about Harlequins

Harlequin in Batman