Humans are a superstitious race. That we know of, we are the only species that has ritualistic behaviour not related to practical accomplishments. We have superstitions about what to do when something happens and we attach meaning to seemingly inane and innocuous events. One of these is the notion that something bad is about to happen, or has just happened, if a hanging picture falls from a wall.
What Does the Omen Say?
According to legend, if a picture (usually a portrait) falls from a wall, then bad luck is about to happen. However, it will not always happen to the person in the picture. After all, they may have already been dead for hundreds of years, especially if they are an ancestor of the present owner. Some legends say that bad luck will befall the family. Some say that there will be a death in the family. Some believe that if a picture falls from a wall, somebody has already died – you just don’t know about it yet.
Similarly, there is a superstition about what will happen when the glass in a frame breaks – regardless of whether or not the picture has fallen. It apparently signifies a death in the family. Is there a clear origin story for any of this?
The Origins of the Legend
Few sources exist in support of this legend, but most seem to think that it began in the USA. It may even have originated amongst slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. The African slaves were very superstitious, even keeping some of their ancient, animist beliefs and fusing them with the Christian ideology they were expected to adopt.
It is unlikely that their ancestors will have had glass, so the idea of a portrait dropping from a wall may have been adapted for the new colonies of the European powers, while keeping those beliefs. As many people had portraits of themselves during this period, it generally came to mean that the person (or a person if it featured multiple subjects) in the image had either just died or was going to die.
This will not have accounted for the glass breaking variation. Glass was still expensive and afforded only by the middle classes and above. They could not afford as we can today, to attach a piece of glass to a portrait. Besides which, oil paintings did not generally require protection in the way that photographs require protecting.
Examples from History
There are two extensively discussed examples that may prove to be the origin of the story. Neither appears to originate with culture of colonial slaves.
- In one story from England, an unnamed Archbishop entered his study. His portrait was on the floor, the string that he used to hang it to the wall had snapped. The man was so overcome with fright that he died shortly afterwards
- Another story from England here, one of the Dukes of Buckingham apparently died after seeing his portrait fallen to the fall in his council chambers