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Memento Mori

Numerous images and objects functioned as memento mori (reminders of death), asking those who wore and looked at them to pause in the middle of their busy lives and prepare for their inevitable ends. The two elaborate examples below speak to the irony at the heart of this tradition: objects that were supposed to turn the viewer’s thoughts away from worldly things were frequently richly jewelled, delicately crafted, and expensive.

An inscribed ring decorated with an open book, an angel head, and a skull.

The words in the open book that adorn this gold ring read (in Dutch) “’t Leven is mijn Christi, Sterven is mijn Gewin” (For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain). Along with the skull, hourglass, and angel, these words reminded the ring’s wearer of the transience of earthly life. Inscribed on the inside is: “ons leven is een schadú op aerde” (our life on earth is a shadow).

Memento Mori ring, c. 1620-1650. Rijksmuseum. Public domain.

A coffin pendant opened to reveal a silver skeleton within.

This tiny coffin opens to reveal a silver skeleton. Whilst the message might be one of mortality and the inevitability of death, the craft and wit of this item speak to a delight in worldly things.

Skeleton in coffin pendant, Europe, 1701-1900, by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY