How memento mori reminds us of the transience of life and the ‘art’ in dying well

How memento mori reminds us of the transience of life and the ‘art’ in dying well

Memento mori means to remember your death, or to keep mortality in mind, and as such is at the heart of the ethos of the art of dying well.

In the midst of life we are in death…

The Latin words memento mori mean to remember your death, or to keep mortality in mind. The phrase reminds us to be prepared for death, as journalist and award-winning presenter, Trevor Barnes explains:

This week I made a will. Being of sound mind and body (quiet at the back) I did wilfully and voluntarily declare that, in the event of my death… etc etc. And then, as I signed the document, something rather wonderful happened. I experienced a moment of quiet contentment. More than a feeling of ‘job done’, ‘provision made’, or ‘duty performed’ it was the satisfaction I derived from confronting the inevitable after years of delay and deferral.

Putting our worldly affairs in order

And then, even before the ink had dried, my mind went back in time to the child I had been over 60 years earlier. The memory still clear, I compared (and gratifyingly contrasted) my present feelings with those I had experienced as a fearful child about to be admitted to hospital for the removal of my tonsils. ‘Am I going to die?’ I wailed inconsolably to my mother who assured me that I wasn’t and that everything was fine.

But, given that I am and it isn’t, I then wondered troublingly whether she had been lying all along. Because, fast approaching my three score and ten, I know with absolute clarity that there is only so much sand in the upper chamber of the hourglass and that it is running away at an alarming rate.

Confronting the reality of death

In short I know, contrary to my dear mother’s assertions, that I am going to die. Moreover, I  know equally that, for a similarly fearful child in Syria right now, or for a refugee family on an open boat in the Mediterranean, everything is emphatically not fine.

Of course my mother was not lying but lovingly deferring the truth, knowing as she did that the comforting fictions we must sometimes be told as children will all too soon give way to those harder-edged realities we must face as mature and responsible adults.

Read more about the importance of forward planning and how to prepare for a good death.

Memento mori

A will is perhaps the starkest, most pedestrian even, of things reminding us of death. Two recent interviews for the Art of Dying Well podcast (episode 17) focussed on other more imaginative – and, yes, beautiful – reminders of our mortality.

These were summed up in the Latin phrase memento mori whose origin Patrick van der Vorst, a former Director of Sotheby’s, now studying to be a priest in Rome, explained. Patrick is also behind Christian Art Today, a website listing the Gospel text for the day, alongside a work of art relevant to that reading.

The origin of memento mori

Memento mori became of note as a phrase said to have been used after an army had defeated its enemies in battle. A slave was summoned from the ranks and made to stand alongside the conquering general. “Remember that you, too, will die” he declared, reminding the mighty of their all too human frailty even in their moment of triumph.

It was a theme later developed in the Christian tradition by painters and sculptors who  incorporated a variety of motifs, from skulls to ripening fruit, into funerary art and architecture. Patrick explained that he had been particularly interested in this theme during his time at Sotheby’s and that, with Ash Wednesday and Lent approaching, it was a timely one to explore.

Memento mori in art

Over the years artists have interpreted the theme of memento mori exhaustively and in ever more subtle and imaginative ways. Skulls, extinguished candles, timepieces of various kinds, decaying fruit or fading flowers in dry vases can be routinely found in paintings as if to remind the viewer that his or her time on this earth is necessarily of a limited duration.

Sometimes macabre or unsettling these images had, for Patrick, two things in common and two things that combined his twin passions in life.  These passions were art and faith. For however morbid these images might seem, they were always presented as objects of undeniable beauty exquisitely rendered on canvas or in stone.

Imagery to encourage us to enjoy life

Patrick sees no contradiction in this and, far from finding such imagery negative and life-denying, he finds it positive and life-affirming.

Such painted or sculpted reminders, he said, are not threats but prompts or encouragements to enjoy what life has to offer and to live a good life while we can. And with that he encouraged us all to explore places like the National Gallery in London – for our entertainment, yes, but also to learn important life lessons from all the beauty on display.

In a second interview the art historian Lynne Hanley developed the theme further. Founder of Beyond the Palette, an exclusive art tours company, Lynne introduces small groups of visitors in situ to paintings they might be viewing for the first time or to paintings which, despite their familiarity, have surprising secrets to reveal on closer inspection.

Using art to remind us of our mortality

Via a number of examples of memento mori in art we explored how such reminders of human mortality were often to be found in the comfort of a home or in the familiar surroundings of a study. Scholars, for example, would routinely place a skull on the study desk to remind them that everything would pass in time, that even the strongest arms or the keenest brains would decay into dust before too long.

Lynne introduced us to a work by Andreas Vesalius, a 16th century Flemish physician and artist, whose work in the field of anatomical dissection allowed him to contemplate unflinchingly the sheer physicality of the human frame.

A glimpse of our everlasting souls

We were presented with an upright skeleton leaning nonchalantly against a plinth on which lay a human skull; not so much the blind leading the blind as the dead staring at the dead.

It is a surprisingly jaunty, even humorous depiction of the fate that lies in store for the frail bodies we inhabit. And yet after a moment’s reflection we are forced to confront a second possibility. That it is not we who inhabit the frail body but perhaps the frail body (here depicted in surprisingly rude health) that temporarily inhabits something far greater than our physical self; our everlasting souls.

What comes after our death?

The image seems mutely to be asking what remains of us when we are gone. A handful of dry bones or something invisible and eternal from which those dry bones were released long ago?

Lynne’s next choice developed this theme further with an example of a genre of Dutch painting very popular in the 17th century. Harmen Steenwyck’s 17th century still life, An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life.

‘Vanitas’ paintings

In the foreground and in the lower right-hand diagonal of the painting are piled some of the trappings of worldly aspiration; the sword denoting power, the silk and the exotic shell denoting wealth, and the flute, book and upturned lute denoting knowledge and culture.

In the centre, however, and dominating the whole tableau are the skull and the guttering flame of the oil lamp setting everything inescapably in the context of extinction.

And yet, and yet…

A gateway to the eternal

Look to the upper left hand diagonal and you see only empty space irradiated by a shaft of light; the eternal in all its simplicity mocking the busy clutter of the temporal down below. Mocking, perhaps, but also strangely reassuring. Reassuring us that death is not to be feared but is, rather, a gateway to another existence long after the silk has been ravaged by moths and the oil lamp has run dry.

Read more about spiritual questions about death and dying.

Contrast this serenity with the frenzy of 21st century metropolitan life, the desire to keep ageing and death at bay with pills and potions and creams and moisturisers. Eternal youth is what the advertisers promise us and anything less is marketed as failure. Steenwyck’s painting, however, and others like it, point to a different understanding not just of death but of life itself.

Memento mori and the here and now

The theme of the podcast mirrored one of the underlying aims of the Art of Dying Well, namely to affirm calmly that contemplating the inevitable is not a gloomy or a terrifying enterprise. On the contrary facing the reality of death can make us all the more appreciative of life, of its brevity and therefore of the need to enjoy it to the full while we can.

For both guests art is central to this shared endeavour – for Lynne as she introduces visitors into the hidden mysteries of familiar paintings and for Patrick on his website which intersperses daily Gospel readings with his reflections on art.

As Patrick puts it, “Beauty is a gateway to truth.”

Listen to the Art of Dying Well podcast.

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