History of Memento Mori Art

Memento Mori is a Latin term that translates to “remember that you will die,” and has been illustrated in numerous works of art. While the expression may sound somber, the point of Memento Mori is to serve as a reminder of our mortality so as to make best use of the time we have now. As the tradition of remembering death carries on, we’ve compiled some of the greatest pieces of art depicting Memento Mori throughout history.

Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette is one of Vincent van Gogh’s earlier works. It is an oil-on-canvas painting depicting a skeleton with a cigarette, and can be found in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Considered a Memento Mori, van Gogh painted the piece when he was in poor health while attending classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Although many view it as condemnation of smoking, van Gogh was himself a heavy smoker who never shook the habit.

 

Pablo Picasso created this lithograph titled Black Jug and Skull, which depicts a human skull, wine jug, and open book on a table. The day he created it, he also created a similar lithograph dubbed Composition with Skull, which was less dark and menacing than the former piece. Black Jug and Skull illustrates the shortness of worldly pleasures alongside the certainty of death: the wine jug embodies temporary pleasure, the book represents excessive pride through learning, while the skull serves as a stark reminder of mortality.

The concept the Danse Macabre or ‘Dance of Death’ has also been depicted in different artworks. Nevertheless, they all share the same message: whatever your lot is in life, death unites us all, or as one Italian proverb famously notes, “At the end of the game, the king and the pawn meet in the same box.”

The earliest recorded visual of the Danse Macabre dates back to a mural on the charnel house of the Cemetery of Holy Innocents in Paris in the 15th century. The image depicts a succession of different people, from emperor to farmer to child, who are each accompanied by a dancing skeleton. Every figure has a verse sketched below them, which highlights  their station in life. Thereafter, the imagery spread across Europe, typically on the outside of churches. While some of these murals have been preserved, many are only known indirectly through archival references.

Another early work of the Danse Macabre comes from a painting by Michael Wolgemut in the late 15th century, which features a group of skeletons celebrating and dancing. It served as a reminder of the horrors of the Black Death, one of the worst pandemics in human history, which swept across Europe in the mid-14th century. The picture portrays the process of death and decay, with organs spilling out from the innards of some of the skeletons. Wolgemut intentionally didn’t depict the genders of the skeletons in order to illustrate the Black Death had mercy on no one.

Hans Holbein the Younger, from the 16th century, is also known for his Dance of Death woodcuttings. The left pictures The Old Man where death guides an elderly gentleman into the grave while playing a musical instrument called a dulcimer. The right features The Abbess where death drags the head of a house of nuns away as one of her sister’s is left screaming.
                         

Below we see The Peddler, also by Holbein, which features death grabbing a peddler by the arm, who points toward his intended destination while attempting to move forward.

Here is the work of a famous Danse Macabre in Hrastovlje, Slovenia, in the Holy Trinity Church, which depicts characters with different backgrounds being lead by skeletons to the grave.

 

Ubi Sunt is another term that represents Memento Mori, which means “where are they now?” Referring to people who have died, Ubi Sunt is used to meditate on mortality and life’s transience. Here we see an Ubi Sunt picture by Eugène Delacroix from the 19th century titled Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard, which represents one of Shakespeare’s plays when Hamlet finds skulls in a graveyard.

 

Another inspiration for Memento Mori art is Ars Moriendi, which means “the art of dying.” It is the title of two related Latin texts from the 15th century explaining how to have a good death. There were multiple sections in the Ars Moriendi texts, but the most influential section for creating Memento Mori art was on the five temptations that plague the dying man: lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride, and avarice.

Here is an Ars Moriendi from the 15th century showing demons tempting a dying man with crowns (earthly pride) alongside Mary, Jesus, and God watching with disapproval:

On the left features an Ars Moriendi from the 15th century titled Temptation of Faith by Master E. S., illustrating a battle between angels and demons over a dying man’s soul. Similarly, on the right the right features an Ars Moriendi from the 15th century titled Death and the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch, illustrating the struggle between good and evil over the deathbed of a miser.

                                                        
Memento Mori has influenced a number of artists and people of all walks of life. Many individuals are getting Memento Mori symbols tattooed on themselves as a constant reminder of their mortality. If you have a Memento Mori tattoo you would like to share, please send a picture of it with the story about why you got it to info@dailystoic.com.

If you’re looking for less permanent ways to carry the powerful message of memento mori with you, explore Daily Stoic’s medallions, prints, and pendants below: