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Memento Mori | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine | August 2017 |

Memento Mori, Carpe Diem
and the Art of Mortality in Medieval
and Renaissance Europe

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

In a stunning new exhibit entitled The Ivory Mirror, the Bowdoin College Museum takes a look at the iconography of mortality and death in late medieval and Renaissance Europe.  The show, which features, exquisite ivory carvings, engravings, manuscript illuminations, small sculptures and several oils examines the attitudes toward and depiction of death in the 14th-16th centuries. Arranged both chronologically and thematically, the display is divided into five sections: Mortality and Selfhood; The Art of Dying, Death; Purgatory, and the Last Judgment; The Afterlife of Death; and the Anatomy of Death.  Each explores the evolving attitudes toward mortality over the course of the war-torn and plague ridden late Middle Ages into the burgeoning of humanism in the Renaissance. Each of these miniature objects speaks eloquently to this gripping visual journey, which was also echoed in poetry and literature.

Death was an ever-present companion in 14-16th century Europe and the statistics grim. In the 1400s half of children born would not live past their sixteenth year; mothers frequently died in childbirth; beginning in 1347 more than one-third of Europe’s population succumbed to the Black Death. The odds of a person waking up healthy and confronting death by nightfall were all too common. Then, too, death was highly visible and intimate acquaintance in premodern Europe. People often died at home among family and friends; there were no palliatives, and no way to sugar coat the ordeal.  From childhood, what else do we hear but the groans of the dying? asked Erasmus.

Coping with the prospect of and the consequences of death became major themes in medieval and Renaissance life. Christianity figured prominently in shaping attitudes toward death and dying, offering the consolation of an afterlife to those who merited it, but also threatening and terrorizing those who strayed from the straight and narrow. Memento mori – reminders of mortality – provided visual cues to keep people focused on living a life which would destine them for heaven, while other thematic iconographies, such as the danse macabre and the vivid and graphic depictions of the horrors of death were designed as deterrents. Over the course of three centuries, however, as humanism began to flourish, prompted by a return to the study of Antiquity, these themes and their depictions changed to reflect the growing climate of enlightened thought in Europe. The concept of carpe diem increasingly took hold, encouraging people to embrace this life (rather than focusing totally on the next) in response to the uncertainty and brevity of existence.  Still, death remained a presence, however subdued even into the late Renaissance with philosophical and visual reminders of vanitas – or pride and vanity which would derail “the good life.”



Among the most stunning objects are the ivory carved devotional artifacts – rosary beads and prayer devices, designed to keep the attention focused on the ever presence of death.  An elaborately carved chaplet from 1530 France contains a series of three-dimensional beads that are portraits of well-heeled ladies and gentlemen which culminate in a large carving with four conjoined heads - two of which are skeletons. Another case displays a collections of similarly themed individual portrait/memento mori ivories on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. These are paired with several engravings, among them a striking image by Alexander van Brugsal of a skeleton with a snake in its mouth and a cautionary Latin inscription.


van Brugsal

These segue into several Hans Holbein engravings, among them woodcuts from his series, The Dance of Death, which include a nun visited by the grim reaper. Another from 1524 depicts a rich man surrounded by his treasures, visited by the skeletal figure of death who steals his coins. The artist himself wrote that death was the proper mirror in which one should correct the deformities of sin.

These Holbein engravings are nicely paired with works by the master engraver of all, Albrecht D├╝rer. The artist is represented by the well-known 1514 St. Jerome in His Study in which the scholar-saint keeps a skull prominently displayed on his desk, as well as by such fascinating and forward-looking works as his 1497 The Four Witches, which depicts four naked woman, highly sculptural in contours which, despite the title, actually recall the Three Graces imagery of Classical times. Influenced by D├╝rer, Hans Sebald Beham creates a powerful engraving, The Fall of Man in which Adam and Eve flank the figure of death who holds the serpent.



The infiltration of humanism into the themes and depictions of death are further observed in a series of engravings based on Petrach’s Trionfi. In which there is a somewhat more hopeful look at the human journey as it progresses through love,
chastity, time, death, and eventually through Christian belief to the reunion with the Trinity. The notion that while death is inescapable, it can be best mastered through “the art of dying a good death” is voiced in D├╝rer’s 1510 woodcut, Death of the Virgin, which depicts Mary surrounded and comforted by the apostles, including Peter who wears the Church’s miter, as she passes into eternity.

Van der Heyden

The alternatives to ”living and dying well” also found vivid depictions in works about the Last Judgment, including Pieter Van der Heyden’s engraving after Bruegel with its busy, three-tiered hierarchy that illustrates heaven, purgatory, and hell with all its graphic horrors. Others, such as the illuminated manuscript for The Office of the Dead, include a realistic image of a corpse wrapped in winding sheet being placed in a wooden coffin and blessed by a priest. Even with the Reformation, the notion of befriending death was prominent. Martin Luther, himself, wrote that we should familiarize ourselves with death when it is at a distance so as not to be surprised by him when he is on the move.

Part of that familiarization continued to lie with keeping images of death part of daily life and thought. Variations on the memento mori theme continued not only with personal objects and small sculptures designed for home use, but also with larger themed canvases such as the mid-seventeenth century Belgian artist, Cornelius Gijsbrechts’s oil, Vanitas Still Life, which has as its central object a skull set among other objects associated with life’s pleasures, such as a violin (music), a drinking mug, and candle. This painting gives a religious spin to the secular genre style of still life in Northern Europe in the 1600s.



Another visual spin off of the fascination with death was the way in which drawing and painting were used to contribute to the study of anatomy. The exhibition features several 16th century texts with their carefully observed illustrations of the human body dissected by death and the surgeon’s scalpel, while the increasing importance of scientific knowledge manifests itself in a Dutch portrait of a surgeon.


An interesting and unique section of the exhibition features French artist Chicart Bailly, who was active in Paris from 1490-1533.  Inspired by the French courtly love tradition as well as by the culture of mortality, Bailly’s engravings depict lovers confronting death or youth mirrored in the image of its demise.  Perhaps the most striking example of his work is an ivory figurine of a beautiful nude woman which when reversed reveals her skeletal self. Youth perishes like a flower, a mere breath of air, reminds Erasmus, while Pleiade poet Pierre de Ronsard writes:  Cueillez, cuillez les roses (gather, gather the roses.) 

If death remained an omnipresent concept throughout the 14th- 16th centuries, the manner of dealing with this fate slowly changed. From a helpless sense of intractable destiny, slowly artists and poets began to seek for ways to transform – at least psychologically and figuratively – the hold which death had upon life. The notion of carpe diem was not born with the Renaissance. From Francois Villon’s 15th century plaintive Ou sont les neiges d’antan? to Robert Herrick’s 17th century Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, the notion of living despite the reality of dying increasingly took hold in Western thought.

Vischer the Younger

In The Ivory Mirror this notion is embodied nowhere better than in a 1525 bronze unusual inkwell by Peter Vischer the Younger.  The small sculpture features a nude woman standing next to an urn (the inkwell itself). Her hand is raised toward the heavens; a small skull is at her feet, but the tablet propped against the inkwell reads in Latin, Reflect on life, not on death. Whether she is a Muse or other classically derived figure, her message is inspiring and suggests in a burgeoning era of intellectual and artistic discovery that writing itself can be a path to salvation.

In a beautiful display of superbly crafted artifacts, The Ivory Mirror offers an intriguing visual look at a complex theme. Not only does the exhibition examine life’s corollary – death- from multiple perspectives, but it traces the gradual change in Western thought which ultimately wrested from death its dominance over the joy of living.

The Ivory Mirror is on display at the Bowdoin College Museum, Brunswick, ME from June 24 – November 26, 2017.

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Coarousel and Other Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2017 Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold
 ©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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