Memento mori is a Latin phrase that translates to “remember you must die”. It is a reminder to reflect on our own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. This concept has a long and rich history that spans across many cultures and time periods. We’re going to explore the history of memento mori and its significance in various eras.
The idea of memento mori can be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece, where it was common for people to carry small tokens or talismans that served as a reminder of death. These tokens often depicted death in the form of a skull or a skeleton, and were worn as a reminder of the fragility of life. This was especially important during times of war, as a reminder that death could come at any moment.
In medieval Europe, the concept of memento mori became increasingly popular in religious art and architecture. The image of a skull or a skeleton was often depicted in paintings, sculptures, and frescoes, serving as a reminder of the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death. During this time, the memento mori symbol was used not just to encourage reflection on one’s own mortality but also as a way to inspire piety and devotion to God.
During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, memento mori continued to be a popular theme in art, literature, and architecture. However, the focus shifted from religious piety to a more secular one. The skull and skeleton became a symbol of the transience of life, a reminder to make the most of the time we have and to live life to the fullest. This idea was reflected in the works of artists such as Caravaggio and vanitas paintings, which often depicted still lifes with symbols of death, such as skulls and hourglasses.
Philippe de Champaigne: "Still Life with a Skull"
During the Victorian era, memento mori took on a more sentimental and emotive tone. The popularity of mourning jewellery and keepsakes, such as lockets and brooches, rose during this time. These pieces often contained miniature portraits of loved ones or lockets of hair from those who had passed away and served to keep their memory alive.
19th century Mourning Jewellery: Hair locket brooch
In modern times, the concept of memento mori has largely fallen out of popular culture. However, the phrase and iconic symbols continue to be used by artists, writers, and philosophers to explore the meaning of life and the transience of our existence.
'Memento Mori' Engraved Femur Bone by The Blackened Teeth
Skulls are commonly used in memento mori paintings, particularly still life compositions where they would be surrounded by other symbols of death, such as flowers, hourglasses and candles. These works were often meant to evoke a sense of sadness or melancholy, reminding the viewer of the finality of death and the transience of life.
Adriaen van Utrecht, Still Life with Bouquet and Skull, 1642
Memento mori has been a part of human culture for thousands of years, serving as a reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. It has taken on many forms and meanings throughout history, but its core message remains the same: to encourage us to reflect on our own mortality and to live life to the fullest.
At The Blackened Teeth, we design and create decor that can evoke a powerful reminder of life's impermanence. We adorn and embellish the macabre, but at its roots our products are talismans, reminders and memento mori tokens.
Whether we carry a token, wear a piece of jewellery, display ornaments in our home or simply reflect on the concept, memento mori is a powerful reminder that life is precious and that we should make the most of every moment. It isn’t to be taken as morbid, or taboo, but to inspire and culminate a positive outlook.
Author: Rebecca Arnett