Memento Mori can be translated as “Remember that you are dying”, reminding us of the fragility of existence. It is an art of symbol, which uses many images and metaphors to evoke our inevitable finitude. But what exactly is Memento Mori art? And what different meanings does it take on, depending on the era and the culture? Artsper invites you to discover this fascinating artistic trend, from still life to offbeat portraits!
Memento Mori art: symbolizing death
A movement impregnated with a great symbolic dimension, Memento Mori art is full of objects that recall or embody death. A universal symbol, the skull is the most common and explicit image. But the skull is not the only representation of our finitude, far from it. In this artistic movement, the allegories are numerous and varied.
Among the most frequent subjects, the hourglass, symbol of the time which runs out and on without any control. Less poetic, but more explicit is the metaphor of the clock and its crazy race. We also find the candle and its flickering flame, ready to be extinguished at the slightest gust of wind. Then come all the naturally beautiful but perishable elements, such as wilting flowers or decaying fruit. A fly sitting on food can also make an appearance. The butterfly represents the stealthy nature of life, as well as the persistence of the soul beyond death. More subtly, the presence of a book can represent the vanity of knowledge or, on the contrary, the wisdom of the soul.
Memento Mori art, a Stoic origin
As you can see, Memento Mori consists in remembering our ephemeral condition. And this mark of humility does not date from yesterday. It was a well-known practice of the Stoics in ancient Rome. The Memento Mori was even part of a ritual that took place after a war victory. When a general was celebrated for his victories, a slave would stand behind him, saying in his ear: “Memento mori! Respice post te, Hominem te esse memento.” – “Remember that you will die! Look behind you, don’t forget that you are only a man.” A technique to remind the glorious commander that he, like everyone else, was doomed to die.
Stoic humility reinterpreted by Christianity
This notion will be found much later, in many paintings made between the 16th and 18th centuries. Here, humility is suggested through pictorial realism. These vanitas and other still lives have an uncommon precision. The play of light, the incredibly meticulous details, the retranscription, almost palpable, of materials, the effects of transparency… everything seems real. And this pretense is not without reminding us of the deceptions of our senses. We do not feel our finitude, but it is not less real and inevitable. To this representation is added a Christian dimension: the privilege of spiritual immortality contrasted with carnal pleasures.
A universal artistic movement
Memento Mori art thus aims to expose what we constantly try to bury: our certain death. It surfaces both moral and metaphysical issues, bending to the cultures and religions it crosses. Very present in Mexican art, the Memento Mori is also observed in Indonesia, Western Europe and Central Africa. It therefore takes very different forms: addressing our fear of death and our need to remain humble. Sometimes it evokes the battle of the spiritual over the corporeal or denounces the temptation to succumb to denial. It also expresses the rejection of all vanities, such as the search for money or power. In this way, it is a reminder of the equality of all of us facing the fragility of life… whether we are beggars or billionaires, we will succumb to it all the same way.
Memento Mori art: remembering the unthinkable and honoring the living
Memento Mori art also holds the power to remind us that all anxiety about death is futile. What could we possibly fear from something we are not going to experience? Death is a non-event, and the only lesson to be learned is to honor life. As Marcus Aurelius said: “Remember how precious is the privilege of living, breathing, being happy. The perfection of our conduct consists in using each day we live as if it were our last, and in never having impatience, languor, or falseness. We must feed the soul with the wisdom that comes from accepting death.”