‘Memento mori’ is Latin for ‘Remember death’ (or ‘remember that you will die’), and refers to a medieval Christian practice of contemplating one’s own mortality. Cheerful, indeed. The idea was that you were supposed to remember that earthly riches and pleasures were fleeting and time on earth was short, so the pious person should devote themselves to preparing their souls for eternity.
This actually isn’t as morbid as it might seem. In western society at least, death has become very whitewashed, hiding away behind the doors of hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes. The deceased are removed to funeral homes to be prepared for burial. Everything is done by the professionals, out of sight. We don’t have to look at it. We don’t remember that our current attitudes are relatively recent in history.
Back in medieval Europe, death was a close and daily occurrence. Violence, sickness, and accidents were far more likely to be fatal due to a lack of medical knowledge, antibiotics, access to the limited medical knowledge of the day and so on. Today the odds are in our favour of living to a ripe old age, but back then you were considered old if you made it into your fifties.
The first challenge in life was surviving childhood. Nearly half of all children born would not make it to adulthood, childhood diseases and infections carrying them off in spite of all care. Families would have lots of children precisely because they wouldn’t all survive. Once you made it past that first hurdle your odds would increase, but there was still illness, accident, warfare, childbirth for women. Adult males would likely see combat at some point in their lives, even peasants being obliged to go to war if their local lord did. Women were at risk with each pregnancy, many dying from complications during birth, or the so-called childbed fever afterwards, an infection that was easily preventable with hand-washing by attending midwives and doctors. Even the wealthy could not avoid these dangers, and depending on their rank might face the added perils of being on the wrong side of political conflict and facing assassination or execution. The poor had to look at every winter as something perilous and life-threatening. Famine would bring starvation.
Even if you have survived all of these dangers and lived a long life, imagine how much death you would have seen. As a child, you would witness the deaths of siblings, or be told that a friend will not be around anymore because they’ve died. You make it through childbirth, but how many women you know have not been so fortunate? You’ve been to war, and been forced to kill others when you might not even have been told why you’re fighting. You’ll come home without many of those you went with, having seen them die horribly on a battlefield somewhere. You have to tell their families why they’re not coming home. All through your life you’ve seen executions, and maybe you’ve been acquainted with the criminals. Every day of your life death has been a constant presence. It has been a struggle, just to survive.
So, remember death? How could you forget it? Well in a sense the idea is meant to be comforting. In a world that was often harsh and cut short, people were encouraged to focus on the state of their souls. They were to contemplate eternity and heaven, and concentrate on living a moral and pious life in order to achieve this. They were to remember that time was short, and not to waste it on frivolity. In heaven all the horrors of an earthly existence could be put behind you. People were told not to rush after earthly pleasures. These didn’t last, and would not save you from torment, either in this life or in hellfire. So funny as it sounds, Memento Mori is meant to be a kindness.
This became a common theme in art. The authorities wanted to encourage this thinking, and in a world where people, even if they could read, would be unlikely to have access to a bible, pictures were used for religious instruction. This was the reason for paintings and statuary in churches and elsewhere, and the concept of Memento Mori became a common theme. While ‘memento mori’ as a philosophy became less popular over time, the art that illustrated the concept has remained popular into modern times. Paintings of skulls, flowers, or candles were the most popular motifs to symbolize the fragility of life. Hourglasses or other timepieces might show the passing of time, while musical instruments, wine and fruit symbolized the empty pleasures of the world, while books suggested that even great learning would not save you..
The ‘Danse Macabre’ was a version of this, depicting a gruesome dance between the living and the dead. It was shown in paintings as a dansc either headed up by Death as a skeleton, or alternating figures of the living and the dead. Once again its purpose was to remind the viewer to prepare for death – dance is fun, but death strikes at any time, and you might be dancing right into the grave. (Of course, some might say that going out dancing is not a bad way to go.)
‘Vanitas’ paintings, popular with Flemish and Dutch artists around the seventeenth century, were another form of this concept, usually depicting still life art with the symbols mentioned above. The intention was to depict the fragility and impermanence of the material world.
‘Cadaver tombs’, (or transi tombs), popular during the later Middle Ages, depicted an effigy that would show the body rotting rather than as it was in life. Some tombs might have both. Again, the intent was to show the ephemeral nature of the world, including the human body itself. Many examples of this can be found in England, France, Italy, Germany, and Ireland.
These motifs are still used in art today, but they are devoid of their initial significance, instead taking on the more fatalistic view of the impermanence of things without the spiritual solution. I don’t know that this makes much of a difference to the viewer today, as the secular viewer may find the call to focus on the afterlife incomprehensible. I think, however, that there is something to be said for the contemplation of mortality, if it reminds us that we need to make our lives count.