Thursday, March 20, 2008

Looking into the eyes of death.

The Latin phrase, Memento mori, meaning "Remember that you are a mortal", "Remember you will die", "Remember your death", is a specific genre of beautiful work that reminds the viewer of their own mortality.

The Memento mori picture became popular in the seventeenth century, in a religious age when almost everyone believed that life on earth was a preparation for Divine Judgement, Heaven, Hell and the salvation of the soul. These ideas brought death to the forefront of the consciousness. The symbolism became popular in funereal art and architecture of tombs of the wealthy in the 15th century, most powerful was the transi, or cadaver tomb which portrayed the decayed corpse of the dead. The intense humorous, danse macabre (The Dance of Death), a dark portrayal of the Death swaying the rich and poor into his hands of forever death is a prime example of the Memento mori theme. "Death" became decoration in many European churches, where as later on many Puritan tombstones in the United States, similar depictions of winged skulls, skeletons, or angels blowing out candles were frequently seen.

An early
memento mori piece from the early 19th century.

Time pieces or "death clocks" often were a reminder of an individual's mortality, with time on earth growing shorter by every second and the passing minute. Many public clocks were decorated with elaborate mottos such as ultima forsan ("perhaps the last" (hour)) and vulnerant omnes, ultima necat ("they all wound, and the last kills"). Many private people often carried these distinct "death clocks." One person in particular was Mary Queen of Scots who owned a watch carved into a skull made of silver.

An example of a Memento mori death watch created by Thomas White, London. 1780.

A basic mememto mori painting would be a portrait with a skull, but commonly other symbols are hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit or a flower losing it's petal. Closely related to the memento mori is the Vanitas still life, Latin for "vanity". In addition to symbols of mortality other symbols are of musical instruments, wine and books to remind us explicitly of the worthlessness of common pleasurable objects that control one's life. The term originally comes form the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: 'Vanity of vanities saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity'.

Pieter Claesz (holand├ęs: 1597-1660). Vanitas. 1630.

Later with the invention of photography during the 1860s, mourning photography  became popular with preserving the image of the deceased. Many  mourning photos were painted or embroidered in silk, cotton or wool; this photo was often the only image taken of the deceased in poorer families.

The first piece from the Skeleton Krew Collection, an memento mori interpretation of death portrait translated through a ferrotype and gouache and ink. By artist Leila Marvel ©2008.

The body in the end, is a machine that will eventually stop and decompose. With the brevity and fragility of human life in the face of God and nature, one must live like there is no tomorrow!

Memento mori. March 9, 2008.
Mourning; Rituals, Clothing, and Customs.


1 comment

Lady Lavona said...

Happy Easter Leila! xo Lavona

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