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 Skull and a Writer's Feather, 1628.

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

Exterior panel by Jan Gossaet, Diptyque de 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 prevailed, 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 seem morbid to some, but it was a discipline that was held in high regard.

This practice required people to detach themselves from their earthly goods and luxuries. The fleeting nature of these vanity objects was juxtaposed with the immortality of the soul and the idea that energy should be put to the service of the afterlife. 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 symbolism of Memento Mori
Artists have long been fascinated by this stoic philosophy, using the dark teachings as a springboard for their art. In fact, the art of the skull, which certainly has its origins in the memento mori, continues to be a popular aesthetic niche. The skulls, skeletons and winged skulls have all been used as powerful reminders that we will all leave this earth at some point. Skulls are in fact the most common symbol in the art of memento mori 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 the skulls is used to pay homage to those who 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 the memento mori. Throughout the history of Western art, artists have used various metaphors to symbolize the fragility of life. In the Netherlands, in particular, still life painting was used to explore these concepts. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, these paintings were often called 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 fruit 1630

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