How a macabre reminder of death became a Renaissance status symbol

Published 31st October 2017
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How a macabre reminder of death became a Renaissance status symbol
They may appear morbid by today's standards, but at the turn of the 16th century, they were the height of fashion: palm-sized ivory carvings of skulls, mirrored by human faces, that represent status, wealth and the looming specter of death.
Commonly referred to as "memento mori," the objects take their name from a Latin phrase (meaning "remember you must die") that informed popular thinking during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. They were collected by social elites -- from upwardly mobile merchants to Europe's most powerful monarchs -- across France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
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Institutions from around the world, including London's Victoria and Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, have contributed examples of the carvings to an impressive collection now being exhibited at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine.
Stephen Perkinson, an associate professor of art history at Bowdoin College and the guest curator of "The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe," describes the 15 carvings on display as "miniature masterpieces."
"They have a basic message, which is the memento mori message: To remind the viewer that we are all mortal and that, in the end, death equalizes all of us," he said in a phone interview. "What's interesting about these objects (though) is that the theme doesn't explain their intricacy, their complexity, their interest."
Two views of "Rosary Terminal Bead with Lovers and Death's Head" (c.1500-1530) attributed to Chicart Bailly of Paris Credit: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A sign of wealth

Although the 15th and early 16th centuries -- when most of these pieces were made -- were times of relative social and political stability, ivory memento mori were part of a larger cultural moment that emphasized humility, reflection and moral obligation. Traveling preachers would deliver sermons on mortality to peasants in Paris cemeteries, the working class would buy prints on the theme (some of which feature in "The Ivory Mirror") and the rich had their ivory carvings.
"In a lot of respects, people (were) living better then," Perkinson said. "So in some ways, these things are not so much responses to the fragility of life, but rather the comforts that people are feeling, and a way of saying, 'Don't get too caught up in the ways in which your life is better than what your grandparents experienced.'
"They're a response to the fact that people might (have been getting) distracted from their faith, from their moral duties. They might be distracted into obsessing over luxury goods and treasures instead of remembering the fragility of life."
An Ivory chaplet (c. 1530) made in France or the southern Netherlands Credit: Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum
On examination, it seems inevitable -- if ironic -- that the ivory devotionals would become the very luxury items they were designed to warn against. The use of ivory suggests long-distance trade and a taste for the exotic, while the surprising anatomical correctness (which Perkinson says reflects "information about the structure of bone that was cutting-edge knowledge in their day") would have been appealing to collectors looking to show off their worldliness and wealth -- the way an alligator-strap, Swiss-crafted watch might do today.

Transcending religion

But the metaphor of the anonymous skull, stripped of all markers of identity, was pervasive, and could be taken as a comfort or warning, depending on your status.
"At the time, people were very fixated on this idea that your individual identity is conveyed through your face and your appearance -- your costume, your heraldry and your insignia of office ... (So) that message that, in the end, everybody is indistinguishable and the same on some level, social differences are erased, is a pretty powerful one," Perkinson said.
A Netherlandish memento mori engraving print (c. 1520) attributed to Master S. (Sanders Alexander van Brugsal) Credit: Courtesy Bowdoin College Museum of Art
While this message reinforced the Christian sentiments of the time, Perkinson believes that memento mori transcend religion, tapping into fundamental questions about morality and forcing people to think about their actions on Earth. Even if we don't discuss death as openly or plainly today, this preoccupation remains, he said.
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"One of the interesting things about this exhibition is that we've had people come through from all different faith traditions (and) we've had people who don't have any particular faith tradition," Perkinson said. "It has resonated with them beyond matters of faith or any of that stuff. It's a set of issues that people -- almost everybody -- is thinking about on some level, and finds this information reassuring.
"People have been dealing with (death) for a long time, and it is something you can't avoid in the end. The question is: What do you do with that?"
"The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe" is on at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art until Nov. 26, 2017.
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