Topics in History: Memento Mori

This is one of a new series I want to do: Topics in History.  As a former history major, and aspiring museum curator, I want to flex my historical muscles a little bit more on this blog and throw some education into the internet.
Memento Mori

Original Image: Danse Macabre (1493) by Michael Wolgemut.

One of the most fascinating subjects that I’ve ever found in history is memento mori.  You’ve probably heard of them.  There’s been a flurry of interest in the last few years in Victorian death photography, which is of course only one type of memento mori.

“Memento Mori” means approximately “Remember that you will die” in Latin and the phrase dates back to ancient Rome.  Since then, it’s come to refer to art and material culture that focuses on death.  In medieval Europe, especially after the black death, a lot of art portrayed death (often as a skeleton) dancing.  Death was not necessarily seen as a tragedy to most Europeans, but rather an event that led to eternal spiritual life.  Artists commemorated death with images of skeletons and angels dancing, dining, and drinking.  Paintings were probably the most common form of memento mori, but there were also plenty of sculptures, usually carved from marble, that depicted images of death.

Danse Macabre in Tallinn by Bernt Notke

Other kinds of material culture have also been given the memento mori treatment.  An outstanding number of clocks featuring skeletons and latin inscriptions still exist as memento mori.  Jewelry, especially rings and lockets, was also a popular medium of the same.

Ring c. 1700

Victorian death photography is probably the most famous of the various forms of memento mori.  Now, photographs are common.  We snap selfies and take pictures of strange fashions we see on the bus.  We take portraits every year of school, for graduations, for sororities and other organizations.  We don’t question that we will have a million photographs of ourselves.  But that wasn’t always the case.  Before the mid-twentieth century photographs were rare, expensive, and difficult.  Few people had them taken on a regular basis.  Often, the only time a family could afford to have a photograph taken was at death.  As such, death photography became an incredibly common form of remembrance.  I remember discovering this phenomenon in the Nicole Kidman movie The Others as a child.  There is an entire archive devoted to these photos, and at least one flickr collection.

Art is a lens into the individual psyches of the artists, as well as into the collective psyche of their culture and time period.  Memento Mori give us a look into what might often be considered the darker side of the human mind.  But I don’t think it’s dark.  In pre-modern times death surrounded everyone.  Infants died from SIDS and no one knew what it was.  Young children fell playing, and died of complications.  Adults got a leg boil and died.  Infections killed every day.  Now, we fear death as something that is out of the norm.  Earlier peoples undoubtedly also feared death, but they confronted it much more frequently than we do.  I don’t think that Memento Mori represent a morbid dark side of the human psyche at all.  I think they represent the same type of thought process as Carpe Diem or YOLO.  A reminder that life is unpredictable and you don’t get any do-overs.


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