Memento Mori and Vanitas in Art History




Skull illusion painting by Tom French

Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’. Memento mori paintings often contain a skull but can contain other symbols such as hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers.

The paintings were part of a medieval Latin Christian practice of reflecting on human mortality and that things we chase after during life are left behind when we die.

Vanitas, which means emptiness in Latin, are similarly themed paintings, often from the Netherlands. They were intended to remind the viewer of the transient nature of life and the futility of pleasure, which provided a moral justification for painting attractive objects.

“To This Favour” by William Michael Harnett 1879
The extinguished candle, spent hourglass and skull are symbols of  human mortality. The inside cover of the tattered book is inscribed with a Shakespearean quote from Hamlet (the Graveyard scene).
“All Is Vanity” by Charles Allan Gilbert 1892

The drawing is a visual pun. The woman is admiring herself in a mirror which appears to be a human skull. In art, a woman preoccupied with admiring her beauty has often been a symbol of vanity. The table where she sits is often called a vanity. The phrase “All is vanity” comes from Ecclesiastes 1:2 (Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.)

It is less widely known that Gilbert was an early contributor to animation.

Modern Examples

“Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic” by Jana Sterbak 1987
Made from 50 pounds of raw flank steak sewn together. It was displayed on a tailor’s dummy, along with the photo of a model wearing the dress. Jana Sterbak said the work is a contrast between vanity and decomposition.
“For the Love of God” by Damien Hirst 2007
Cast platinum (from 18th century human skull) covered with over 8000 diamonds. The pink, pear-shaped diamond in the forehead is known as the Skull Star Diamond. The teeth are from the original skull.

Museum of Non-Visible Art