Written by Diana Spoge
I am a visiting first-year student from Latvia, attending the University of Wolverhampton. When I was asked to analyse an image pertaining to death using semiotics I chose this image because of the connection with my culture. It is simplified here in order to share it with a wider audience.
The name of the image I chose is ‘Nāve’ (‘Death’), 1897 produced by Latvian painter Janis Rozentāls. The painting was produced in a time when most of the people lived ordinary lives as peasants. The author was mostly painting people’s daily life but sometimes reflecting mythology and religion. This image is one of those paintings – something between daily life and mythology. I chose this painting because I really like Latvian mythology and wanted to examine this painting from a different point of view.
‘The functions of the image are those that have, throughout history, been the functions of all human production: they aim to establish a relation to the world’. If we look at the image we can see a representation of death from Latvian mythology as a woman standing in white. There is also an angry woman, sitting on the rock at the edge of the forest, holding her dead child. Around the main characters of the painting we can see woods, a small path and the beginning of a meadow. Judging by the nature and colours, it could be summer.
Bignell suggests that ‘images are produced according to social and aesthetic conventions’ and this is certainly the case with this image. Therefore, even before this image is produced a Latvian person would already know that death is usually represented by the woman in white holding a sickle.
For those familiar with Latvian mythology it is clear that the child is dead and ‘The Mother of Death’ (that is how death is usually referred) is taking him with her. Of course, death is ‘an abstract referent, because it is something that is formed in the mind and is thus not demonstrable’. 
Death is one of the goddesses in Latvian mythology and she is always wearing white. Also the dead child is wearing white. In Latvian mythology the white colour indicates death, rebirth, the world of the dead, and everything else related to death. Also, death is holding a sickle in her hands, because a sickle, the same as the scythe in the Western image of death, is symbolically used to cut life short. Death leans over the child and her facial expression (she sneers) shows that she is happy to take the child. Death also has bare feet, because she is in very close relationship with nature. She comes from nature. The path death stands on belongs to her and she comes out of the woods to take the child. Thus, the mother of the child was waiting for the goddess.
The woman, who is holding the child, has a very simple outfit and hairstyle, and Latvian traditional footwear. It shows that she is from the peasant class. Her facial expression shows that she does not want to give away her child. She is angry and is looking straight at death but leaning back from her.
If a Latvian would see this painting, he or she would know that it is about death. People from other cultures may not recognise the symbolism within this image and not realise what it is about. For many people in the West, the woman wearing white would represent something good. Yet the woman holding her baby is angry. Another thing to note is that it is summer, because the nature all around is green and the mother is lightly dressed. Nature is a key feature for the goddess death. Both lighting and colour are important to this image, which is drawn in the Art Nouveau technique, making the viewer drawn to the women in the front of the image.
All in all, the painting is harmonious and every colour has its own place. Therefore we can imagine ‘Mother of Nature’ becomes ‘Mother of Death’ and death then becomes part of the cycle of nature; or death is part of the cycle of life.
All in all I would say that ‘Nāve’ is a really good painting. It includes some kind of danger, but at the same time I can feel peace and harmony. By looking at this image it is very important to be familiar with the culture it comes from to understand the meaning and idea of it, because as Sturken and Cartwright argue, ‘the capacity of images to affect us as viewers and consumers is dependent on the larger cultural meanings they invoke and the social, political, and cultural contexts in which they are viewed’. 
It was not very hard to write about this painting, because Latvian culture is really close to me and I really enjoy finding out new things about it. Of course, in the beginning, the topic ‘death’ scared me a little bit, because I did not know what image to choose and what I should write about. But then I understood, that I have to write about the culture I come from, because it is closest to me, and then it does not matter, what topic I have to write about. I really enjoyed the process of analysing and I am happy that I could learn new ways, such as how to look at this painting from my own cultural viewpoint.
- Aumont, J. (1997). The Image. London: BFI Publishing, Pg 54.
- Bignell, J. (1997). Media Semiotics: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Danesi, M. (2002). Understanding Media Semiotics. London: Arnold, p.24.
- Sturken, M.; Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of Looking: An Introduction to visual culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.25.
- Rozentāls (1897) Nāve. [online].. Available at: www.makslasvesture.lv.