Let’s be honest, most of us, even at Halloween, would rather not think about the reality of our own mortality. But for our medieval ancestors the prospect of death was a feature of their daily lives. Epidemic disease, poor nutrition, famine, basic medical care, inadequate housing and appallingly violent warfare meant that the average life expectancy could be as low as 30 years.
Perhaps because of this, medieval people didn’t consider it the least bit morbid to often contemplate the shortness of their lives and the inevitability of death. Life in medieval times was all too often, in the famous words of the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, ‘nasty, brutish and short.’
English Heritage cares for two remarkable objects that relate to this very theme. Known as memento mori, or ‘remember death’ in Latin, they provide a fascinating insight into medieval religious beliefs and attitudes towards death. In this blog Dr Michael Carter reveals the history of memento mori and explains what they can teach us today.
A daily reminder of death
Memento mori artwork and imagery are laden with religious significance. They show the two sides of human existence, juxtaposing life and death, often in quite a gruesome way.
Medieval Christians (and 1.2 billion Roman Catholics today) believed that at death their souls were destined for one of three places. The very virtuous would immediately enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven, but those who lived a wicked life and showed no remorse for their sins would be damned to burn in Hell. The third possibility was Purgatory, an intermediate state, where souls would be purged of sin before being allowed to enter into heavenly paradise.
With the stakes so high, it was essential to be prepared for death. Memento mori were designed to help people to do just that.
In focus: memento mori in our collection
English Heritage has two memento mori in its collection at Ranger’s House, near Greenwich, London.
The first is a small ivory pendant produced in the Netherlands in around 1500. Aesthetically, its two sides couldn’t be more different. One side is carved with the bust of a rich lady in the prime of her life. She is clad in expensive clothes and carries a small lapdog. A heavy linked chain, doubtless of gold, hangs around her neck. It’s the very image of wealth and worldly pride.
But a Latin inscription around the veiled head strikes a different chord. ‘Alas, I must die’, it reads in translation.
This prepares the viewer for the horrific image adorning the opposing face. Here we are presented with the hideous reality of death — it shows a decomposing skeletal corpse being devoured by worms, frogs, slugs and salamanders. A Latin inscription on its forehead reads: ‘This is the end’.
The second object is an exquisitely carved miniature boxwood coffin dating back to the 16th century.
When opened, its multiple layers reveal, in turn, a funerary effigy, a decomposing corpse, and finally, a skeleton.
The boxwood coffin has a clear parallel to the design of some late medieval funerary monuments called cadaver or transis tombs. These double-decker monuments usually feature an effigy dressed in finery on an upper level, with decomposing corpses below. People who saw such tombs would say prayers for the soul of the deceased, but the image of the corpse would also prompt onlookers to consider their own mortality.
Both objects were in the collection of industrialist Julius Wernher (1850-1912) and are on display at Rangers House again from 1 April 2019 (Sunday to Wednesday). Like other collectors of his day, Wernher would have valued the objects as virtuoso pieces of sculpture and as macabre curiosities, and modern -day visitors will probably appreciate them for similar reasons. But for our medieval ancestors they were daily reminders of the fragility of human life, and a stark warning to live their most holy lives in order to avoid Purgatory, or worse, Hell.
A brief history of memento mori in Europe
Memento mori imagery first appeared in the late 13th century – about the time when the Church’s theology of Purgatory was being formalised. But the peak of their production was between the 15th and 17th centuries, during what modern scholars call the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Most – like the two objects discussed here – originate from northwest Europe (modern day Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.) They were made in large numbers and from a variety of materials. The examples in the Wernher Collection were very much at the luxury end of the market, with humbler examples crudely carved in wood or bone. Still, their messages were the same.
Memento mori imagery typically contrasts an image of a person in life and in death, often shown on two sides of the same pendant, as we’ve discussed here. These pendants would have been attached to a string of rosary beads arranged in tens. Each bead was used to count an Ave Maria (Hail Mary), a prayer to the Virgin Mary. Mary’s help or intercession was thought to be especially effective at securing the salvation of souls and reducing the time a person spent in Purgatory. Said daily, the rosary was a defining characteristic of late medieval devotional practice. Individuals would often hold onto memento mori images while praying to contemplate the transience of life, the decay that awaits us all in the grave and the fate of the immortal soul.
As well as featuring in pendants and objects, memento mori have a much wider artistic context. Images of shrouded and worm-eaten skeletons were used to adorn illuminated initials and the borders of prayers for the dead, especially in prayer books known as ‘books of hours’. These were medieval ‘best sellers’ featuring prayers structured around the services, or hours, of the liturgical day.
Another popular image was ‘The three living and the three dead’, like the 14th-century example shown below in the Lisle Psalter. These would show three finely dressed young men, usually enjoying a day’s hunting, who encounter an equal number of decaying corpses. The dead lecture the youths on their worldly ways: ‘As you are, so were we; as we are, so shall you be.’
Popularity of memento mori
There’s been a lot of debate about why memento mori and similar imagery was so popular during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Some scholars have suggested that it was due to the Black Death, the terrible pestilence that killed between a third and a half of Europe’s population in the space of just three years, between 1347-49. Others interpret them as evidence of the pessimism, decline and insecurity accompanying the ‘waning’ of the Middle Ages.
But neither of these arguments is satisfactory. This type of imagery existed centuries before the arrival of the Plague and few scholars now accept narratives of late medieval decline. Because they addressed key spiritual and emotional needs, memento mori imagery can actually be seen as evidence of the vitality of late medieval religion and its wide appeal. Few things mattered more to people in the Middle Ages than the fate of their soul after death and memento mori – and the devotional culture they were part of – provided individuals with a sense of comfort. They believed that they had an active role in securing the salvation of their own soul and those of their loved ones, and memento mori helped to remind them of that.
Artistic representations of memento mori continued to have a role in Catholic religious observance well into modern times. But this sort of imagery had no role in Protestantism, which rejected religious imagery along with prayers to the Virgin and for the dead. Instead, the sole route to salvation in Protestant theology is faith in Christ, so representations of memento mori gradually lost prominence as religious beliefs diversified.
Relevance of memento mori today
Even though our pendant and boxwood coffin were produced half a millennium ago, I’d argue that they still have important messages today. We’re constantly confronted by images of youthful beauty and perfection and encouraged to believe that this is an ideal to which we must aspire. You don’t have to read too much history to encounter people in the Middle Ages who were arrogant, proud and vain but their religious culture stressed the need for humility – and made them all too aware of the transience of worldly glory.
Indeed, it’s an inescapable fact that we all get old, and that no matter how rich, famous or beautiful we might be, death is part of life and awaits us all.
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