What is a memento mori? The name itself is Latin. Memento meaning remember and mori meaning death, together they become the phrase “remember that you must die.” In art, this concept is often portrayed through the use of skulls, hourglasses or clocks, flowers, fruit and extinguished or guttering candles. Seems a little macabre? By today’s feelings on death it is. However, memento mori has roots that can be traced back to the ancient past. When the great philosopher Socrates said the practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” This isn’t supposed to be a tool for inciting existential panic, rather one of reflection on life as a fragile gift that should not be wasted on the trivialities of life. That being said, here are some examples of memento mori from art history to think about.
1. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533)
The painting The Ambassadors immediately creates a feeling of formality. Two men stand commandingly and stare at the viewer. The phrase “these are very important people” may run through the viewer’s mind and they would be correct. The man on the left is Jean de Dinteville, a French ambassador. To the right is Georges de Selve, the bishop of Lavaur. However, something seems off about the floor. A strange and distorted figure in the foreground is almost unrecognizable. Well, if the viewer was to look at the painting from the lower left side or high on the right side, the outline of a skull appears. Boom. Memento mori puzzle solved.
2. Vanitas with Sunflower and Jewelry Box by Maria van Oosterwijck (c. 1665)
Oosterwijck pulls out all the stops for her painting Vanitas with Sunflower and Jewelry Box. A vanita is a painting that contains memento mori, but also aims to remind the viewer of the worthlessness of any worldly possessions. Oosterwijck does exactly that with a skull, discarded flowers laying on the table and a partially eaten orange among the the fanciful gold and jewelry. However, unlike many other vanita painters, Oosterwijck throws in symbols of resurrection. For example, the butterfly on the leaf of one of the roses laying on the table. This may be the way Oosterwijck tells the message of her faith. How overwhelming the shackles of mortality can be, we can find hope in Christ’s Resurrection.
3. Basket of Fruit by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (c. 1596)
This basket of fruit is gross. There are spots of decay and insects, some grapes are wrinkly and leaves are wilting. It’s the exact opposite of what we’d expect to find in the produce aisle in the grocery store. However, this is a perfectly ripe example of memento mori. It’s obvious to us that this painting shows us that we, much like the plant life in this painting, will become beaten, battered and eventually decay. Sound delicious?
Memento mori may seem really dark, but I believe that there’s a deep intrinsic hope that lies within. They serve as a wake up call that we all need to find a deep and important purpose for our lives. For me, a memento mori reminds me of the importance of all life and that every living thing should be valued as a part of the world we live on. So go forth knowing that one day you will die and live everyday in its fullness.
Cameron Cizek is a junior studying computing.