Memento Mori: life and death in Western art, from skulls to still lifes

 

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Writer's Skull and Feather, 1628.

 

We have all heard the expression "nothing lasts forever" it is a saying about the fleeting nature of life, reminding us of our mortality, although most cultures today find a discussion of death disturbing, it does. not always been the case.

 

 

 

 Skullmemento mori by Santa Muerte Paris

 

Exterior panel by Jan Gossaet, Diptych by Carondelet, 1517.


Throughout history, especially in times of conflict, people have been encouraged to think about death and its meaning. In medieval Europe, when plagues abounded, a particular philosophy emerged which asked people to meditate on objects that reminded them of life and death. Memento mori, which means "remember you are going to die", may sound morbid to some, but it was a discipline that was held in high regard.

 

 


This practice required people to detach themselves from their earthly possessions and luxuries. The fleeting nature of these vanity items was juxtaposed with the immortality of the soul and the idea that energy had to be put to the service of the hereafter. Of course, like many philosophies of the time, this resulted in a rich artistic imagery that is now commonplace.

Adriaen van Utrecht, Still Life of Vanitas with Flowers and Skull, 1642.

 

The memento mori can take very different forms, but one element is omnipresent: the skull, the universal symbol of death. In antiquity, it was often seen on the mosaics that adorned houses, such as the one found in a house in Pompeii, which represents him alongside a butterfly, emblem of the soul. Christian art has been particularly fascinated by the memento mori; In the Middle Ages, people loved dances of death, paintings mixing the dead and the living, rich and poor, which recalled the uselessness of power and money in the face of death.

During the Renaissance, the memento mori multiplied with the transis, these sculptures which adorned the tombs and represented the bodies of the deceased. The famous Transi by René de Chalon signed by Ligier-Richier, a gaunt skeleton holding his heart in one hand, is one of the most emblematic works of this movement. In painting, memento mori celebrate the values of humanism, and come in the form of portraits that juxtapose life and death, such as The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger and his anamorphosis of a human skull. They also painted vanities, still lifes showing skulls posed next to objects heavy with symbolism, vases, hourglasses, candles, books, musical instruments and laurel wreaths. Across the Atlantic, memento mori inspired the Puritan artists of the young United States, and they are still very much alive today in Mexican funerary art.

The symbolism of the Memento Mori
Artists have long been fascinated by this stoic philosophy, using the dark teachings as a springboard for their art. In fact, skull art, which certainly has its origins in memento mori, continues to be a popular aesthetic niche. Skulls, skeletons, and winged skulls have all been used as powerful reminders that we will all be leaving this earth at some point. Skulls are in fact the most common symbol in memento mori art and are the classic symbol of mortality.

Instantly recognizable, they are also used far beyond Western Europe. In Mexico, the Día de los Muertos, or "Day of the Dead", is one of the most famous celebrations where the iconography of skulls is used to pay homage to those who have died. From an artistic point of view, Albrecht Dürer, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso are just a few of the artists who use skull imagery to make important artistic statements.


Carved wooden vanities, South Germany, 17th and 18th centuries.

 

However, skulls are not the only symbols used to express memento mori. Throughout Western art history, artists have used various metaphors to symbolize the fragility of life. In the Netherlands, in particular, still life painting has been used to explore these concepts. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, these paintings were often referred to as vanitas (Latin for "vanity"). They used symbols like rotten fruit, musical instruments, watches, hourglasses, and bubbles to show decay and the fleeting nature of life.


Harmen Steenwijck, Vanity with skull, books and fruits 1630




 

 

 

 

 

 


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