The Black Hart

Memento Mori

31 August 2020

How often do you think about your own mortality?

Skulls have always been deeply symbolic to us. Traditions around the globe have used the image of the skull to represent life, death, nature, love and faith in different ways, often worn in the form of talismans and jewellery. The most famous form of this is ‘Memento Mori’ jewellery.

What is Memento Mori?

‘Memento mori’ literally means ‘remember death’ or ‘remember you must die’. The idea was thought to have been popularised in medieval Europe both through the spreading of Christian ideas and the constant presence of death in the era. The medieval period was the time of the black death, societal upheaval and general disease and unrest. The average person could expect to live between 30 and 50 years, and it was normal for families to lose babies and children. At the same time, Christianity had swept through the continent, and ideas about heaven, hell and purgatory began to take root in the minds of the people. It is thought that this cultural environment is what caused the popularity of memento mori jewellery (and art, music and literature). With the intention that wearing images of death would remind the wearer that not only is death an inevitability, but it can come at any time. To avoid burning in torture for eternity or having to atone through a long stay in purgatory, one was expected to live piously at all times, just in case. The rings, pendants and other jewellery depicting the skulls and mottos typical of the memento mori style were meant to be a constant reminder of one’s own mortality.

A gold memento mori pendant, used to remind the user of the transience of life and material luxury, containing a decaying corpse inside a coffin. (Open).

A gold memento mori pendant, used to remind the user of the transience of life and material luxury, containing a decaying corpse inside a coffin. (Open). Credit: Wellcome Collection.Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Wearing Skull Rings

While the religious aspects of this theory are most definitely upheld in many examples, memento mori jewellery was so widespread that the meaning must have been wider than merely a christian fear of a doomed afterlife. In the Elizabethan period, it is thought that the finger on which one wore a ‘deaths head ring’ (usually a skull without a lower jaw) indicated one’s standing in life - thumb for a doctor, middle finger for a bawd (pimp or brothelkeeper) etc. But wedding rings and love tokens also depicted skulls, skeletons and mottos of mortality, indicating that while the skull imagery was meant to remind one of mortality, that it also symbolised commitment and ‘til death’ part of the marriage vows.

This English example from the collections at the V&A, made between 1550 and 1600 has two inscriptions. The face of the ring reads ‘Behold the ende’ and descriptions of the object state that around the band, the inscription says ‘rather death than fals fayth’, where a true lover’s knot unites two initials. It is thought to be a memento mori wedding ring:

Gold Ring with a skull in the centre of the face, surrounded by black lettering.

Gold Ring with a skull in the centre of the face, surrounded by black lettering. Credit: V&A Collection

Depictions of Decay

One trend I find particularly macabre was the double sided carvings, showing both life and death at once. Sometimes in the form of necklaces meant to be worn alongside a necklace of prayer beads, reminding you to think of death while saying your Hail Marys.

Memento mori carved ivory pommel. View of young woman on the front and cadaver on reverse

Memento mori carved ivory pommel. View of young woman on the front and cadaver on reverse. © Trustees of the Wernher Foundation Credit: English Heritage

Wooden memento mori of a woman, Italy

Wooden memento mori of a woman, Italy. Credit:Science Museum, London.Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Monks and religious people in the medieval period and beyond were often buried in a tomb called a ‘transi’, on which a life sized statue of the deceased laid on top, usually in a skeletal form, sometimes shown with worms and other signs of decay. These cadaver monuments would also be common for those of high society, who wanted to display their piousness for all to ensure their safe travels to heaven after death.

Cadaver Tomb of Prior William Weston

Cadaver Tomb of Prior William Weston (c.1470–1540). (LDOSJ 5492) Photo credit: The Museum of the Order of St John via ArtUK

Money Can’t Buy Life, But it Can Buy Reminders of Death

It is interesting to me though, that the jewellery created to remind one of the transience of material life and wealth were often made so beautifully from precious metals and stones. This example from the British Museum, probably made in France between 1525-1575, is made from gold with colourful enamel, precious stones and even opens to reveal a figure and inscription in Latin, which translates to “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord” “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and he shall bring it to pass”

Memento Mori finger ring, showing a skull on top of a book made from gold and precious stones

Memento Mori finger ring, showing a skull on top of a book made from gold and precious stones. The British Museum

Memento Mori finger ring, shown with the book face open to reveal a languishing figure and black lettering.

Memento Mori finger ring, shown with the book face open to reveal a languishing figure and black lettering. The British Museum

Not all examples of memento mori jewellery are so gaudy though, and were worn by everyone from the poor, who might have pendants carved from wood, to the noble people. This gold Italian piece from the V&A has only a tiny skull, but an inscription that translates to ‘Remember the end’:

Gold ring, the octagonal bezel engraved with a shield with two notches and a merchant's mark with C & R attached, a skull above and the inscription 'RICORDATI. IL. TUO. FINN.'

Gold ring, the octagonal bezel engraved with a shield with two notches and a merchant's mark with C & R attached, a skull above and the inscription 'RICORDATI. IL. TUO. FINN.', Credit V&A Collection

Death and Time

One of my favourite examples I have found in looking for skull inspiration is this watch:

Silver skull watch with cursive engravings on top of head.

Silver skull watch with cursive engravings on top of head. Credit: The British Museum

Made in a beautiful solid silver, the jaws separate to open the skull and reveal a clock face. This piece, now held at the British Museum, is believed to have been made in Germany, between 1655-1665 by J C Vuolf. The collections online page has more information about the item, but the draw to me lies in the simple but beautiful and clear skull face, and the multiple engravings.

Around the top of the skull are four inscriptions: ‘vita fugitur’ (life is fleeting), engraved across the front temple; ‘caduca despice’ (look down upon a fallen thing), over the right side; ‘aesterna respice’ (look upon eternity), over the top of the left side; and finally, at the back of the skull, an engraving of an hour glass flanked by the words ‘incerta hora’ (the hour [of death] is uncertain).

If I ever make a watch, it is definitely having that last inscription.

The idea of time is inextricably connected to that of life and death, and is constantly symbolised in memento mori jewellery by an hourglass.

This brooch shows a skeleton holding an hourglass, a classic combo for memento mori, but also includes human hair and the inscription of a person’s initials.

Memento mori, Europe, 1689

Memento mori, Europe, 1689. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

While the use of hair in mourning jewellery exploded in the Victorian period (this can be a whole post of its own) this piece has the date 1689 inscribed on the back. This shows that people were already using typical ‘memento mori’ imagery for more than only religious purposes, way before the Victorians made it popular. While the skeleton is a macabre reminder that life is fleeting, this example shows that those meanings can sit alongside more sentimental ideas about life and loss.

In fact, the ideas of remembering ones own death and the deaths of others become more and more openly linked throughout time. This invitation to the funeral of Sir Edward Sebright shows illustrations of the funeral march, allegorical figures of death and Resurrection, and says, below the invite text : REMEMBER TO DIE

Ticket To Thomas Seers for Sir Edward Sebright's funeral. Highly decorated with black and white illustrations.

Ticket To Thomas Seers for Sir Edward Sebright's funeral. Highly decorated with black and white illustrations. Credit: British Museum