Memento Mori: Death and Art in the Late Middle Ages

Topics: Memento mori, Danse Macabre, Black Death Pages: 3 (943 words) Published: September 25, 2013
 “Vita brevis breviter in brevi finietur, mors venit velociter quae neminem veretur, omnia mors perimit et nulli miseretur. Ad mortem festinamus peccare desistamus.”1 Humans have always had a fascination with the macabre, undoubtedly because it is one of the few things in life one will never fully understand; as beings it is very difficult to comprehend the concept of “being” no longer. This is often amplified in times of widespread devastation, which was the case during, and, following the Black Death. Art often reflects the concerns of society at that time, and this was most certainly the case in the late Middle Ages. Due to the extraordinary death toll caused by the Plague, and the essentially nonexistent understanding of the mechanism of the spread of disease caused society to stray slightly away from the traditional doctrine of the church and gravitate towards more fatalistic concepts. The Memento Mori and Transi Tombs exemplify the infatuation (with a side of healthy fear) European society had with death following the Plague. Memento mori, which translates to “Remember, you must die”, were devises used to remind one of their own mortality.2 Memento mori does not refer to one particular image, but applies to an entire collection of images or sayings. Often they are depicted as skulls or full skeletons, with wings or an hour glass. The wings or hour glass illustrated the fleeting nature of time and how quickly one’s life could end.3 Time pieces themselves would often have phrases such as “ultima forsan”4 or “vulnerant omnes, ultima necat”5. The phrase often used today, “tempus fugit”6 originated around this time. If one is to examine much of the art produced at this time, plague iconography would not be difficult to find. Death and the Miser by Hieronymus Bosh is an interesting example of what could be referred to as “plague art.” This painting seems to represent the frivolity of life and the importance of refraining from various sins, greed in particular....
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