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Remembering Death

In Phædo, in which he discusses the immortality of the soul, Plato says that philosophy is about nothing more than “being dead and dying.” 

Death is the only thing guaranteed in our lives. It is the thing which unites us – regardless of race or gender, status or beliefs. Death is inevitable. From the second we are born, death appears by our side and remains with us until our final breath has been taken. 

“All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike. All is ephemeral – both memory and the object of memory. The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

We contemplate death, so we can appreciate the present. The stoicism of Cicero, Seneca, Socrates and Diogenes, and the humanism of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Alberti, and Poliziano, are windows into this contemplation. Through discussion and meditation, the awareness of impermanence can heighten our appreciation for the present. It is only by embracing our place in the world, and accepting how limited our time is, we can realise our potential as individuals and strive to become well-rounded and useful to society.

Even religion portrays death as salvation, an escape from earthly pleasures and sin; a step towards a heavenly afterlife. It is unsurprising, then, given the importance of both philosophy and religion in our lives, that there is a clear dialogue between them and art. 

REMEMBER YOU MUST DIE

The word ‘memento’ comes from the Latin word ‘meminī’, meaning to remember, or bear in mind. The word ‘morī’ comes from ‘morior’, to die. 

Memento Mori is a warning: your time is limited. It is a plea: make the most of the time you have. 

While almost anything that signifies impermanence can be considered a Memento Mori, there are a handful of commonly used motifs: 

  • Skulls – the most common and obvious in meaning; 
  • Clocks and Hourglasses – symbols of time running out – 

“Our lives are but specks of dust falling through the fingers of time.”

SOCRATES
  • Wilting Flowers and Decaying Fruit – all living things perish, and this is often emphasised by the appearance of flies; 
  • Candles – flickering flames easily extinguished, and sometimes already only a trail of smoke remaining;
  • Bubbles – which last for only a few seconds before bursting; and 
  • Butterflies – a symbol of the soul’s persistence beyond death, of us changing into something new. 

You can see symbols of Memento Mori in all genres of artwork, from Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time to Dalí’s Persistence of Memory and van Gogh’s Sunflowers. These symbols were also often seen in the form of jewellery – mourning rings, pendants, and brooches – detailed by skulls, bones, and even the names of the dearly departed. But there are whole genres dedicated to death. 

YOU ARE DUST, AND UNTO DUST YOU SHALL RETURN

The most obvious place to find Memento Mori is in funeral art and architecture. 

Originating in the late Middle Ages, Cadaver Tombs are funerary monuments which often depict skeletal effigies. 

Here we have the Tomb of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany in the Basilique-Cathédrale de Saint-Denis in France. This is far from a flattering depiction. Louis suffered from a severe case of gout which led to his death in 1515. The sculpture shows his naked and rotting corpse, his hair thin and his eyes sunken. 

Or perhaps this, the Cadaver Tomb of René of Châlon, commissioned by his widow. From the late gothic period, this once-reliquary is considered a ‘living corpse’. The Prince of Orange is depicted as a skeleton standing upright, his muscles and skin long since decayed. His left arm is raised, gesturing towards the heavens. 

THE DANCE OF DEATH

The Danse Macabre was an allegorical genre of paintings in the late Middle Ages. Such art portrayed a personification of Death summoning humans to dance along to their grave. The individuals chosen are from all walks of life – no one escapes Death’s clutches, not the pious and poor nor the sinful and rich. 

Paris’ Cemetery of the Holy Innocents appears to be the earliest recorded example of the Danse Macabre, though the genre grew in popularity in the 15th century; a period where Europe lost almost a third of its population to the Black Death, famine, the Hundred Years War, and countless revolts. 

Hans Holbein the Younger, famously created an entire book of woodcuts with the Danse Macabre as his theme. The series was drawn while he was in Basel in 1526, and first published as The Dance of Death, a set of forty-one images, in 1538. 

VANITY OF VANITIES, ALL IS VANITY

The significance of Memento Mori takes a central role in Vanitas paintings. This style of still life is formulaic. It uses literary and traditional symbols of mortality to emphasise the inevitability of death, the passing of time, and the futility of worldly pursuits. They are also often rooted in religion, unsurprising considering the word “vanitas” references the Old Testament: 

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”

Ecclesiastes

Vanitas paintings are reminders that all we do is temporary, but faith is forever, living long past death. 

Steenwijck’s Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life is one such painting from the Dutch Golden Age. The painting includes: 

The table is cluttered with objects, most precariously placed, giving the impression they are about to fall off the table and shatter in our space. While it’s unclear what’s inside the jar, a frayed rope is wound through its handles. Look closely and you can see the very slight profile of a man’s face. Beside it, a lute turned upside down, and an ornate Japanese sword – a weapon that sings for blood. Should it slip, it will push the fragile shell from the table with no hope of restoration. Beside the hilt is a watch, ticking away time. 

On the right-hand side, two books can be seen. One appears to be new, but the other has pages bent from use, a clear depiction of age. But front and centre is that skull – teeth missing, light creating dark shadows in the empty sockets. That light is most important. It enters from the top, left-hand corner; a higher power, the promise of destination we are seeking after death should we turn from the vanities offered to us in life. 

Whatever else happens in life, it is Death which holds the ultimate power. Our time on this earth is short, and we must therefore make the most out of it. What better way to be reminded of that than through art?


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