Memento mori is Latin for “Remember that you must die.” The phrase is believed to originate from an ancient Roman tradition in which a servant would be tasked with standing behind a victorious general as he paraded though town. As the general basked in the glory of the cheering crowds, the servant would whisper in the general’s ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” This loosely translates to “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”
This is a genre that draws upon the melancholic character of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Eat, drink, and be merry if you must, the objects suggest, because death is right around the corner. Memento mori paintings, drawings, and sculptures can range from blunt depictions of skulls, decaying food, and broken objects to subtler examples whose symbolism is easy to miss. A basic memento mori painting would be a portrait with a skull but other symbols commonly found are hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers.
A nice little essay which includes the general practice among several schools of thought and cultures. Reminds me about some of the practices I’ve read about masons practicing.Syndicated copies to: