Memento Mori – A Visual Reminder Of Mortality

Darryl Bachmeier
Jun 4, 2019
Life


Remember “Valar Morghulis” from Game of Thrones? It became the most uttered phrase after the series went viral.

But do you know that ‘Valar Morghulis’ in High Valyrian, which translates to ‘all men must die’ has a Latin counterpart?

‘Valar Morghulis’ reminds us of another phrase, ‘memento mori’. This Latin phrase originated in ancient Rome and has a symbolic connotation to death.

What is memento mori?

The Latin phrase ‘memeto mori’ literally means “remember, you are a mortal”. It reminds a person of his or her mortality or the inevitability of death. It symbolically reminds of the fragility and the ultimate end of human life.

At the same time, it indirectly reminds people to seize the day and make the best of it since everybody must die.

Origin

The origin of ‘memento mori’ lies in antiquity and is an artistic tradition. Ancient Romans perhaps realized that human life is ephemeral and won’t last forever. Therefore, ego and pride are unnecessary as they will perish with the death of the body.

In ancient Rome, slaves accompanied generals during the wars and the victory parades. Since most of these parades had a show of inflated ego and pride, the slaves had to whisper the term ‘memento mori’ in their ears.

The phrase reminded the commanders of the mortality of human life. It would save them from hubris, which is a tragic flaw in classical tragedies. Hubris, or pride, was generally counted as a significant characteristic flaw that would spell doom for kings.

Perhaps, this is the reason for the symbolic significance of the term and its popularity in art and culture.

‘Momento mori’ in Christian contexts

Christianity too acknowledged the significance of the term. It was used to keep people away from ego, excessive pride and too much involvement with pleasures. It kept acting as a reminder to sever mortal pleasures and focus on the afterlife.

The phrase originated in ancient Rome and was spread through Christianity which professes a similar concept of life. It preaches the ideas of life, death, heaven and hell. It also speaks a great deal about the futility of pleasures and pride in mortal life since death conquers everything.

‘Momento mori’ helped to preach the same idea that humans will end up in the grave. Every human is made of dust, and to dust, each and everyone will return ultimately.

Symbolic Representations

The religious and philosophical connotations soon entered visual arts, and since then it is a popular genre, ranging from classical paintings to modern video games. ‘Memento mori’ is a popular trope in visual arts, originating in the ancient and medieval times to the present day.

In the Renaissance period, artists used the trope as a symbol incorporated into their paintings and sculptures.

Renaissance and Baroque paintings depicted symbols of mortality, such as the human skull or the skeleton as a reference to death.

Other symbols that were used were blown off candles and wilting flowers to suggest the fleeting time and the end of life. The idea behind these symbolic paintings and such an artistic genre was to remind humans that death is the ultimate finality and inevitable truth.

Some paintings also used symbols of death along with material riches to highlight the uselessness of human vanity, which is the biggest folly. Even a domestic still-life consisting of a cat devouring a fish is a memento mori. It may be suggesting that we can be in the place of the fish, being consumed by death. Such prominent symbolism in visual art is what we refer to as memento mori.

For instance, the danse macabre depicted in many medieval European churches are a perfect memento mori. The dancing skulls and bones suggest the permanence of death, which seemed constant in the Middle Ages in the form of epidemics like the Plague.

The best example would perhaps be Expressionist painter Walter Kuhlman’s Memento Mori. It contrasts a shrouded skull with a glittering form in the air. This is most probably a classic contrast, studying the impermanence of pleasures, riches and vanity against the symbol of mortality. Paintings of Expressionist artists like Munch and Kuhlman celebrate life against decaying human life.

Conclusion - Is it a morbid concept or a celebration of life?

Death and the symbols of death usually have a morbid connotation and may look spooky. The idea behind the art is not to scare you. Instead of morbidity, one should see the profound philosophy of life and death in the symbols.

It is also an indirect message to live life to the fullest, understand its significance and essence before death ends it all. It’s one way of saying ‘carpe diem’, or seize the day, celebrate and make the best out of it, without dwelling much on vanity and pride.

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