One of the oldest tropes in art history is the memento mori. The phrase, dating back to antiquity, means “remember your mortality” or “remember that you will die.” The phrase and depictions of it became especially popular in Medieval history with the rise of Christianity. The emphasis in this era was on the last judgment. Memento mori in art of early Christianity and the middle ages (see picture at left) emphasize the fleeting nature of life and experience. Memento mori was not just confined to visual art, either. It can be seen in Rome’s Capuchin Crypt or the Evora’s Capela dos Ossos, two chapels that are in part or totally made of human skeleton walls. Creepy, eh?
In the Baroque period, memento mori got a little more glamorous.
In Frans Hals Youth With a Skull, vibrant life is juxtaposed with death to hammer in the notion that judgment could come to anyone at anytime. Showing youth and beauty with its opposite is a little more effective than merely showing death by itself as Medieval artists sometimes did. Although in Medieval art, sometimes the telltale skull would be shown with a drawing of king and court, demonstrating how even the mighty are not immune to God’s will. With the Counter Reformation, though , Baroque artists probably wanted to use more familiar symbols of youth, beauty, and goodness, hence the use of regular looking young people in many memento mori paintings.
In the English and Northern European tradition, there was a slightly different way of showing death next to life. This was in still lives known as vanitas, from the Latin word for vanity. The example at the left represents life, death, and time, the three certainties of existence. It was not uncommon for vanitas paintings to be more graphic, showing decaying flowers or rotting fruit.
In the Victorian age, memento mori popped up in a wildly different way. The presence of skulls in paintings decreased, but the art of death still flourished. Funerary photography was not uncommon, especially for infants who died. The photographs were often very elaborate and almost…life like, no irony intended. Nevertheless their presence in the Victorian home worked the same way a vanitas painting would have in the Baroque era. Photography wasn’t the only way to commemorate death. A common funerary practice was to make sculptures out of a dead relative’s hair or bits of their possessions to put up in the home. I’ve actually seen some Civil War era “hair sculptures,” and trust me, they are very eerie and definitely make you think of death.
Skulls reemerged in memento mori art in the early nineteenth century. The engraver Jose Gaudelupe Posada made many images associated with Mexico’s Dia De Los Murtes. The concept also reentered architecture. The architect Gaudi’s “Casa Batllo” or house of bones, is one of Barcelona’s most identifiable buildings. Of course, it is much more figurative than literal, as opposed to the bone chapels of antiquity.
Memento Mori did not go away in modern and contemporary art. The controversial English artists Damien Hirst’s oeuvre mostly deals with death, but one of his seminal works is a literal memento mori: a platinum, diamond encrusted skull.
The concept of the vanitas has also endured. In 1978, the painter Phillipe Derome did a Cherry Tart Vanitas in oil. The long lasting tradition of depicting death in art is no anomaly. Just like sex, love, beauty, war, and power, it’s one of the themes that’s usually on the forefront of our minds. I’m willing to bet the memento mori is a symbol that no matter how many “posts” get added onto Postmodern, will endure.