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  • Writer's pictureIvy Boyd

Vanitas and Memento Mori: The Art of Death

Updated: Jul 31, 2023


Vanitas Still-life (1668) by Maria van Oosterwijck, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A dead squirrel on the side of the road. Driving by a cemetery on your way to work. Seeing the death of a beloved celebrity on the news. Loss of a friend or loved one. The sureness of our mortality is something we face on a day-to-day basis. During the medieval period, the concept of memento mori (latin for "remember that you [have to] die) gained popularity among philosophers of classical antiquity, like Plato, who famously stated that philosophy is about "nothing but being dead and dying". In Christianity, memento mori kept ideas of heaven and hell alive, perhaps influencing its followers to remain devout to their faith for reassurance that they would see heavens gates when their time comes. For others, it could be a reminder to enjoy life and its pleasures, no matter how small, knowing that at any moment it could end. The importance of this reminder is seen clearly in the memento mori art of the time, consisting of images of skulls (sometimes accompanied with wings), bones, coffins, extinguished candles, the grim reaper/scythe, and the hour glass (also sometimes seen with wings). Other phrases like tempus/hora fugit, meaning "time flees" are can be present and act as another reminder that death will come, and that time is not on our side.


Hora fugit and memento mori art on a Bolton horse drawn hearse, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh (Photographed by Ivy Brandine)

It seems a rather depressing idea to surround ourselves with images and phrases of death, but keep in mind that this was a time where death due to illness and disease was rampant, and the after-effects and fears from previous plagues lingered. Images of memento mori were, unsurprisingly, popular in funerary art and cemeteries where the subject matter is most fitting, but it was also present in other common, public spaces. Architecture in cities would sometimes feature motifs of skulls and reapers. Public clocks engraved with hora fugit reminded passers by that time counted down to their inevitable death. The idea of memento mori and hora fugit kept the reality of our demise in check, and reminded the public to live life to its fullest.


Headstone of Joseph Tapping, depicting classic memento mori art. Kings Chapel Burying Ground, Boston MA (Photographed by Ivy Brandine)

The headstone of Joseph Tapping is a famous example of classic memento mori headstone art as seen in New England. At the top you will see a skull with wings on each side and an hourglass atop its head; a very common depiction of how fleeting life is, and something that you will see on many headstones from this time period. There are also inscriptions of fugit hora, memento mori, and below is a skeleton (death) who attempts to snuff a lit candle, with what appears to be Father Time trying to stop death from doing so, holding his skeletal arm back.


Artwork of this macabre nature was embraced in many facets of daily life, including what we were wearing. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, memento mori jewelry in the form of mourning rings, lockets, pendants and brooches depicting death-related imagery and messages gained more popularity with the help of some famous figures. Mary, Queen of Scots had a particularly large silver watch in the shape of a skull which she gave to Mary Seaton while she was on her way to her execution. This piece (pictured below) was engraved with the lines of Horace: "Pale death knocks with the same tempo upon the huts of the poor and the towers of Kings" and brings a level of equality to both the rich and the poor, pointing out the fact that death comes for us all regardless of our wealth or status.


Print of watch given to Mary Seaton by Mary Queen of Scots at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

During this same time, another artistic genre arose known as vanitas, Latin for "emptiness" or "vanity". Vanitas were most commonly still-life oil paintings featuring imagery seen in memento mori art: skulls, the hour glass, and other classic symbols of death. But in vanitas, these symbols were accompanied by imagery signifying the transience of life (wilting flowers, bubbles, and delicate butterflies), power and wealth (purses, money/gold, and jewelry), earthly pleasures (pipes, goblets, wine, and playing cards) and symbols of the arts and science (maps/globes, books, and musical instruments). Images of resurrection could also sometimes be seen in these still-life's, usually consisting of sprigs of ivy or laurel, or ears of corn.


Vanitas Still-life (1663) by Edwaert Collier, public domain via Wikipedia Commons

These elements come together to convey the impermanence of human endeavors, our pointless desires for power and glory, and that all things will decay with time. The resulting subject matter is beautifully haunting, full of both light and dark; the beauty and joys of life and the inevitability of death.


Vanitas Still-life (1662) by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For more information on this topic, you can check out these sources below which I used for this blog post:
















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