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Death Walks Among Us - Memento Mori

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Hello and welcome back to Carivaggio!

Today we are going to do something a bit different and talk about a topic that spans the timeline of art history rather than discussing one specific era. I feel that this style will help you go into a museum and be able to identify an overarching theme of any painting if you know what to look for.

Many people believe art creates life. It breathes freshness into our world and gives us new ways to think. However, art is not only about life - in its true form it tells us about death. We can only absorb art for a limited amount of time. It is there to remind us that what remains in the frame will live forever - but that you, the viewer, will melt into the dust, just as the artist who created it did. When an artist creates life through art, they are embracing their mortality, knowing that while their picture is eternal, they are not.

Today we will be discussing the artistic idea called Memento Mori and Vanitas. Memento Mori s Latin for"remember that you have to die", and Vanitas is the larger idea meaning the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. A Memento Mori is an artistic, symbolic reminder of death, and appears in a tremendous amount of paintings - popularized with the rise of Christianity in Europe. Although we see this symbol used so much in religious painting, the symbol started in antiquity. Plato himself even states that philosophy is "about nothing else than dying and being dead". Many Ancient philosophers emphasized the fact that we should constantly remind ourselves of our mortality.However, lots of ancient art used the idea of inevitable death as more of a now is the time to drink and have sex type of mentality. The idea of mortality was made more tangible and taken more seriously starting with Christian art. Because Christianity focused heavily on the idea of heaven, hell, divine judgement, and the salvation of the soul, the Memento Mori served to emphasize the emptiness of fleeting pleasures like material objects, drinking, sexual temptation, and other general sinful things (I am sure you can catch my drift). It was also a way to give the viewer a chance to reflect on their afterlife and to live in a way where their soul would be saved.

I have always had a fascination with the idea of Memento Mori. I think that death is such a misunderstood topic in the realm of art. Although people believe that adding an ominous skull to a picture creates a sort of spooky and mysterious feeling - the artist is simply reminding us that we are in fact alive! We are not that sad poor soul stuck in the frame to be eternally oogled at. We should be reminded how precious our life is. So really, death talks more about life - than it does about death. But more on this later.

Now let us look at some ways the Memento Mori took shape throughout art history.

(Holy Trinity, Masaccio, 1426-1428, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy)

Here we see Masaccio's famous Holy Trinity a fresco located in the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. This piece is the first painting to incorporate linear perspective. There is a clear vanishing point in this piece and it is located in between the two kneeling donors on the ledge just under Christ. If you follow the orthogonals (those squares that line the ceiling) on the ceiling, they lead to that vanishing point. This creates the illusion that we are looking up at the crucified Christ, as if we are ascending to heaven with him. But what is really remarkable about this piece is the memento mori located on the bottom of the fresco. Here we see the very moment between life and death. Christ is dying but is ascending to his new role in the afterlife. The skeleton lies there, beneath it all, resting along side the inscription. "what you are, I once was: what I am, you will be". We see Christ returning to the earth from which he once came. The really fascinating thing about this painting is that whether you think of Christ simply as a man or as both god and man - his body will be reduced to a skeleton just like the one in the picture. We are all apart of a never ending circle of death.

(The Chandler, detail of a woodcut by Hans Holbein The Younger for the Dance of Death Series, 1526, British Museum, London, England,UK)

Here we see a reproduction of a woodcut by Hans Holbein The Younger entitled The Chandler (1526, located in the British Museum, London UK). This expression of Memento Mori is called Danse Macabre or The Dance of Death. This expresses the all-encompassing, all-equalizing, and all-conquering power of death. The Dance of Death was also used in music, poetry, and visual arts. This style was most likely popularized at this time as Europe was facing massive fatalities from the Black Death (peaking from 1347 to 1351- almost half the world's population died from the plague) and the 100 years war (1337-1453). The Dance of Death lost its hold over the arts, though, in the height of the Renaissance.

(Death and The Miser, Hieronymus Bosch, 1494-1516, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA)

Here we see Hieronymus Bosch's Death and The Miser a piece for which the sole purpose is to show us the inevitability of death. In the foreground we see the miser in full health (a miser is a person who hoards wealth and spends as little money as possible), placing his gold in a chest surrounded by demons - he is also clutching his rosary with his other hand. Behind the fully alive miser, we see him on his deathbed being tempted by a monster with a bag of gold. An Angel encourages him to look at the crucifix by the window, while death peeps through the door with an arrow. We see the push and pull between good and evil - which all come to a head at the last moments of life. This work serves not only to remind us about the inevitability of death - but also about the hypocrisy within our lives. Do we too serve a material and divine purpose? Is it possible to serve both?

(The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein The Younger, 1533, National Gallery of Art, London, England, UK)

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein The Younger is one of my most favorite pieces. Although painted in England, the inextricable details in this piece are reminiscent of the Dutch style. We see two French Ambassadors to England (Left: Jean de Dinteville, Right: Georges de Selve). Although this is a portrait of two prominent men, it is still essentially a still life painting, as there is so many objects in the picture. Most notably is the anamorphic skull directly between the two men. This is to mean that if looked at from a different angle, the skull will reveal itself and appear to be three dimensional. It is unclear why Holbein incorporated that anamorphic memento mori in this image, maybe just to show off his skill. Memento mori was common in still life images at this time and could be seen as a play on still life. This reminder of death is fascinating to me because it is almost saying, that no matter if you cant see it, death is still hiding in plain sight.~Bonus points if you can find the crucifix hidden in this piece~

(Young Man With Skull, Frans Hals, 1626, National Gallery of Art, London, England, UK)

Speaking of Dutch painting - here we see Young Man with Skull by Frans Hals. Although this painting does not have any other deeply rooted interpretation other than it is a clear example of Vanitas, it is beautiful in its simplicity. It shows off Hals skill in quick free painting, different to the detail oriented dutch style at the time. This piece also has Caravaggisti tendencies - with the bold outfit and theatrical feel. Death comes for all. Men cannot conquer what is inevitable.

(Head of A Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, Vincent van Gough, 1886, Van Gough Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Last and certainly not least - Head of A Skeleton with Burning Cigarette by Vincent van Gogh. Doesn’t look like a van Gogh right? Well, think again. Look at the brush strokes - very obvious and clear strokes without much color blending. It is said that this painting was sort of a juvenile joke about standard artistic practices, and a way for van Gogh to show off his anatomy skills. Although not necessarily related to the traditional idea of memento mori, I wanted to include this as an example of a more contemporary interpretation.

So there you have it folks, some art about death. But like I mentioned above, I do not believe that the idea behind Memento Mori necessarily correlates with the idea of literally dying. Yes, it is there to remind us that death is inevitable and we cannot escape what is already written for us - but I feel that without the reminder of death, we would not be able to truly live. Art is about interpretations of life - for that is all we know. No one who is alive knows about death and as much as we want art to give us the answers to unanswerable questions, it does not have this capability. So we should not be scared by the idea of death, it should gives us a sense of freedom. Although we all will be served the same fate, we have the ability to live as we want to, and nothing, not even death, can stop us.

With Appreciation,


*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia

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