Thanatology Thursday: Memento Mori and Vanitas

I thought we might spend a little time on art history and appreciation for today’s Thanatology Thursday. While I took an art history class in college, I’m a novice when it comes to art. I know what I like, but have little knowledge about what the images represent. So, I’ve really enjoyed researching art that talks about death, and hope you’ll get some enjoyment from my amateur attempts to elucidate here . 

Have you heard of “memento mori?” “Memento mori” is a Latin phrase that translates to “remember you must die”. In the 15th and 16th century, artists began to paint memento mori objects, mainly skulls,  on the back of commissioned portraits. 

Exterior panel of Jan Gossaet, Carondelet Diptych, 1517. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Credit

What does the unattached jaw make us think? Gossaet would have been reminding his rich, and more than likely vain, patrons that this idealized painting of youth, vitality and wealth represented fleeting and meaningless things. And while the canvas and portrait may long exist, the things that we use to define ourselves in these shallow ways – our looks, our belongings, our knowledge – will all fall apart. We must all die and return to only bones that lie beneath this beauty, and one day, even those bones will collapse. 

Later in the 17th century, artists began to represent their ideas and objects of memento mori on the front of their canvases, and a genre of art called vanitas was born. The term “vanitas” is a latin word that literally translates as “vanity and futility.” Vanitas paintings rarely include people and were most often still life paintings containing daily objects that the artist used to represent the futility of accruing possessions, knowledge or any other earthly things. I know about still life, but I never knew how many of these paintings and the items in them were representations of memento mori.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Violin and Glass Ball, 1628. Image via Wikimedia Commons Credit

Skulls still make appearances in vanitas art such as Claesz’s 1628 painting above. Placing skulls in these still lifes recalled with little subtlety memento mori portraits of centuries past. Early vanitas paintings usually represented simple scenes primarily consisting of skulls. But through the years, vanitas painters added more and more objects of daily living. These objects can generally be categorized into several groups.

First, the violin in Claesz’s work above represented arts, science and literature. Musical instruments and objects such as books, globes and maps were often painted to represent this knowledge and intellectual pursuits. Also, the goblet referred to more mundane daily pursuits of earthly pleasures and recreations such as food, wine, and games. Other objects that were used to represent these pleasures in vanitas art were pipes and playing cards. Still other objects were painted as depictions of the ethereal nature of life and death; candles and flowers and fruit, while coins, golden platters, and highly decorated dishes or vases represented material wealth. Commonly, clocks, watches or hourglasses, such as the one in the painting above, helped depict the idea of time and its passing.

Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, Utrecht 1606–1683/84 Antwerp) Still Life: A Banqueting Scene, probably ca. 1640–41 Oil on canvas; 53 1/4 x 73 in. (135.3 x 185.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Charles B. Curtis Fund, 1912 (12.195) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/436637

As years passed, vanitas pictures became brighter and busier. Artists painted tablescapes overflowing with flowers, food and decorative objects, and are often the types of paintings we think of as still life. But these more colorful paintings were still vanitas art. Flowers, of course, die. Fruit dies too and was often depicted as bruised or rotting. Except for grapes, that is, which generally represented Christ and eternal life. Other items were sometimes included that represented rejuvenation, renewal and resurrection – ears of corn, ivy or laurel. So, these paintings can be viewed with a bit more optimism and may seem to some less depressing than earlier examples.

But even the busyness and clutter in these paintings can lead us to reflect on the nature of life and death. They can make us feel chaotic and unsettled. As a control freak who has a mild case of OCD, the random clutter in these paintings makes me mildly uncomfortable. Despite my desires, I cannot order the items in the painting any more than I can order the many events that occur outside of my control – sickness, injury, love, despair – in my life. “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity,” said the preacher in Ecclesiastes. How vain indeed to believe we have the power to order the chaos in the world.

Artists have long represented life through paintings with varying degrees of symbolism, realism and abstractness. Examining memento mori and vanitas art, we learn many artists believed no true depiction of daily life could be produced without acknowledging that death contributes richness and fullness to those scenes. I believe we can add that same depth and richness to our daily lives by remembering “memento mori” more often ourselves. Examples of vanitas and memento mori art can be found all over the web and your local museums, and I encourage you to check them out and see what items you recognize from this blog.

I want to credit Artsy.net and Britannica.com for information used in this article.

Next week, our art discussion will continue about a specific object in death art: BUBBLES!!!!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Published by MKChurchman

Certified Care Consultant and End of Life Doula Specialist. I offer assistance with end of life planning, elder care, end of life and after death care through my practice Shoji Bridge Departure Doula. My passion is bring death into the light. My mission is to be a guide to help people pass through the final barrier on this plane of existence and move gently onto the path to the next.

One thought on “Thanatology Thursday: Memento Mori and Vanitas

  1. Still Life with Violin and Glass Ball is my favorite – you can see the artist at his easel. Reminds me of the Biblical reference out of I Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Thank you for this art history lesson, new to me and very illuminating.

    Liked by 1 person

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