Artist uses X-ray scans of King Richard III's skull to create a forensic record of his remains

By Culture24 Reporter | 14 April 2016 | Updated: 13 April 2016

Alexander de Cadenet has used X-rays of the skull of Richard III to create a series of vanitas artworks more than 500 years after the king's death

A photo of an artistic reinterpretation of the skull of king richard the third
© Alexander de Cadenet / University of Leicester
In 1996, Alexander de Cadenet began using medical X-rays as a way to go beneath the surface and show the inner life of his portraits. The British artist probably didn’t foresee using his forensic approach on King Richard III, whose skull has been the subject of various historical and scientific interpretations since the discovery of the last Plantagenet ruler’s body beneath a carpark in Leicester in 2013.

But his portraits of the dead monarch’s head, set in black and white and vivid, psychedelic colours in a new set of artworks supported by the University of Leicester archaeologists who helped confirm the discovery, appeal to his admiration of Vanitas – still life works which entwine symbolic objects, reminding us of mortality and “the worthlessness of worldly goods and pleasures.

A photo of an artistic reinterpretation of the skull of king richard the third
© Alexander de Cadenet / University of Leicester
“He is a most significant momento mori, embodying the vanitas concept and a potent opportunity to question the meaning and ephemeral nature of our lives,” says de Cadenet, whose other notable “sitters” have ranged from Hitler and Tutankhamun to Marilyn Monroe. “The idea is of a monarch from the middle ages with unimaginable power, a signifier of status.

“For me, Richard III is one of the ultimate skull portraits and I feel honoured to be able to present him using this concept as he is a part of our country's history. The portraits challenge the traditional facility of art to keep the life and identity of a subject alive in the minds of future generations – they present a forensic X-ray record of the subject's remains as opposed to a recognisable likeness of their face.

A photo of an artistic reinterpretation of the skull of king richard the third
© Alexander de Cadenet / University of Leicester
“His remains have been discussed and analysed in such scientific detail, I felt he was an extremely appropriate subject to present as his skull is likely the most recognisable and iconic in the world today.”

The university gave the artist access to their scans, having already seen the Richard III society carry out a facial reconstruction of the king, as well as the King Richard III Visitor Centre’s large photo-mosaic portrait based on his face.

A photo of an artistic reinterpretation of the skull of king richard the third
© Alexander de Cadenet / University of Leicester
“For the University of Leicester to also have been able to prove the remains were his from the genetic information still present in the bones was a scientific triumph of extraordinary magnitude,” says de Cadenet.

“The discovery has contributed in an unprecedented way to the ongoing legacy and story of this subject from history – and that is exactly what I would like my skull portraits to do.”

A photo of an artistic reinterpretation of the skull of king richard the third
© Alexander de Cadenet / University of Leicester
The artist will create six different skull portrait versions of King Richard III. The first goes on display in London today.

  • Exhibition runs at Andipa Gallery, London from April 14-25 2016.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More from Culture24’s coverage of Richard III

Gray Friars skeleton is last Plantagenet king, say Leicester team on trail of Richard III

"Like opening a tin can": The story behind the lead coffin found in Richard III's friary

Newly released film footage shows "eureka moment" when killer blow to King Richard III was found

Leicester Cathedral reveals "distinctive" Richard III tomb "imbued with spirituality"

From car park to royal tomb: Ten stories from the discovery of Richard III

Bread Angel creates Richard III food range to celebrate Leicester archaeological triumph

Benedict Cumberbatch revealed as Richard III's second cousin as actor prepares to read at reinterment ceremony
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