Oct. 19, 2021

Memento Mori

Memento Mori

Remember Death

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. 

In Medieval Europe, when plagues abounded, a particular philosophy that took hold asked people to meditate on objects, known as memento mori, that reminded them of life and death. Memento mori was a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’ and these objects provide a fascinating insight into medieval religious beliefs and attitudes towards death.Memento mori objects, artwork and symbolic 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 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.

Skulls, skeletons, and skulls with wings have all been employed as powerful reminders that we will all leave this earth at some point. Skulls are, in fact, the most commonplace symbol in memento mori art and are the classic symbol of mortality. However, skulls aren’t the only symbols used to express memento mori. They used symbols like rotting fruit, musical instruments, watches, hourglasses, and bubbles to show decay and the fleeting nature of life.