Memento Mori

Herman Henstenburgh Vanitas Still Life

Exuberant flowers bloom and serve as a symbol for life, love, joy and youth, while the skull and bones remind us that all life ends in death. Vanitas Still Life by Herman Henstenburgh, Dutch, 1667-1726, The Metropolitan Museum online collection, acc. # 2003.30

People have been concerned with what happens after death since our ancestors first started burying their dead. You can cite just about any ancient culture (including, most recently, the Neanderthals – see below) and find that there were rituals surrounding the death and burial of their people.

reconstruction of neanderthal burial at La Chapelle aux Saints, Fr

“Most anthropologists now agree, based on evidence uncovered at 20 or so grave sites throughout Western Europe, that our closest evolutionary relatives buried their dead at least some of the time.” Reconstruction of a Neanderthal burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France. Image and quote from

Mortality follows us throughout our lives right up to the final moment and then the big question is – what happens after that?

Theologians can argue the finer points – but historically speaking in Europe, the concept of Heaven and Hell in the Christian faith began to coalesce into dogma sometime in the 1200s.*

During the Middle Ages death was omnipresent and brutal. Life expectancy was about half of what it is today. This was particularly the case when the Bubonic Plague hit Europe in the 14th century, and up to one third of the population perished from the dreaded disease, with some areas completely wiped out.

There were so many diseased and dying bodies that personal burials were forgone for the easier and quicker common grave – which naturally horrified those who were sick and dying, and those who were able to survive.

The need to provide a proper burial became somewhat of an obsession – whatever the cost, you had to have a burial with a priest saying prayers, and the proper rites and rituals performed, as outlined by the Church.

triumph of death book of hours french

Death is upsetting to most people, but in the Middle Ages it was particularly terrifying, brutal and real. The Triumph of Death, from a Book of Hours, French School Provence ca. 1485-1490, Moulins, BM, msl 89, fol.88r

Huge sums of money were spent on places of worship, personal tombs, art, goodly deeds, and donations to religious institutions, to help ensure a quick exit from Purgatory to Heaven (and the total avoidance of Hell) with little or no suffering along the way. Sins could be waylaid and salvation ensured by buying prayers to be performed after death – a practice that the Protestant Reformation (16th c) discarded and outlawed.

It was during the Medieval Period that memento mori – began to appear in all aspects of everyday life.

rosary bead metropolitan m mori death

Rosary bead with death on one side, MMA

rosary bead metropolitan m mori

Same bead with a young couple on the reverse

A memento mori is a symbolic reminder that death is waiting for all of us and that we had better be good citizens while we are living, in order to ensure that our afterlife will be a blessed one.

It was a Christian concept and one which eventually became entwined into everyday vernacular. It has continued throughout the intervening centuries in religious and secular art.

One of the most famous representations is in the portrait The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. In this masterpiece, Holbein sets his subjects in a richly appointed room, dressed in the most expensive and exquisite clothing, surrounded by a collection of finely crafted objects representing not only their wealth but their education and sophistication – all things that only the most elevated and powerful of men could buy and enjoy.

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors, National Gallery, London

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533, National Gallery of Art London, UK

Yet directly in the foreground of this homage to their glorified selves, Holbein placed an anamorphic image – so distorted, that at first glance it seems to be some aberration floating above the floor. A visual puzzle…

Holbein The Ambassadors, skull

The skull transformed and made real. Detail from The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533

But when viewed from the right perspective, it forms a three dimensional skull – big and ugly – smack dab in the foreground in case you might miss it. It seems to say…

… Despite the luxury and pomp of these men, they will die like everyone else, and all their worldly possessions will be meaningless. They will become food for worms just like the poor and illiterate of the world. In the end what will matter most is their spiritual health and their Christian contributions to the living world.

In more recent years there’s been a resurgence in representations of death – on tatoos –


Tattoo of memento mori by Proki Tattoo, Athens, Greece.

on jewellery –

butler and wilson crystal skull necklace

Butler and Wilson crystal necklace

on clothing, and art.

Every goth teen and biker on the planet owns skull enhanced clothing and accessories.


A more high end, artistic example is the diamond encrusted skull created by Damien Hirst in 2007 entitled For the Love of God.  It is made of platinum, diamonds and human teeth and sold in 2007 for a reported £50 million.



For the Love of God by Damien Hirst, 2007

Only Death (excerpt)

by Pablo Neruda

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.


In my next post I’ll be showing you a painting by Bernard Safran that plays with the concept of memento mori.

* Death and Art: Europe 1200 – 1530 by Eleanor Townsend, V & A Publishing 2009


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