Thursday, May 5, 2016

Contemplating Death from Ancient Rome to the Present: Momento Mori and Vanitas in Art

Carstian Luyckx, Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life, 17th century
(Birmingham Museum of Art)

Recently discovered Skeleton Mosaic in Hatay, Roman
(Hatay Archaeology Museum)
Last week, the "Cheery Skeleton" excavated in the ancient city of Antioch, Hatay in modern-day Turkey, was one of the main topics on social media.  Originally it was reported that the ancient Greek inscription next to Şener (meaning merry, happy man, as he has been very aptly named) translated as "Be Cheerful, Live Your Life" (link). This was disputed by a journalist who claimed it was actually a warning about the effects of consuming too much food and wine (link). Whatever the inscription, it captured our 21st century imagination due to the meaning we associated with it. It was almost as if Şener's reclining figure next to a jug of wine and a loaf of bread was bringing a message of 'carpe-diem' to us from centuries ago. Just the type of message we needed to hear as everything around us was coming crumbling down.

Mosaic with Skull and Level, Pompeii (House cum workshop, triclinium 1. 5, 2) 30 B.C.E-14B.CE
(Naples National Archaeological Museum) 

Actually Şener is not the only skeleton from antiquity with a message.  There is a comprehensive post on the history blog about the "Cheery Skeleton" which includes more images of skeletons from antiquity. Of the numerous Roman mosaics excavated with skulls or skeletons, one of the most striking example has to be the mosaic from the triclinium of a House in Pompeii. In this mosaic a large skull at the center is balancing wealth and power, represented with the purple and the sceptre on the one side and poverty represented by the stick and the sac on the other. The idea of death as the great equalizer seems to give comfort for those of us dissatisfied with our present world.

All of these messages of carpe diem seem so relevant today as we deal with wars that leave people without home or country, hatred and racism against those who come from different cultures and religions and income inequality and social polarization. Just thinking about what is happening to the people of Syria, not to say anything of the so-called peaceful democracies in my two countries, Turkey and the United States, makes me ponder maybe we should take Horace's advise to heart as he writes in Odes 1.11 ...
Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set
For you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings Leuconoë.
How much better to endure whatever comes,
Whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last,
Which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs!
Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes!
Even while we speak, envious time has passed;
Pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow! 

John William Waterhouse, Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, 1909
(Private Collection)
Although carpe diem has become synonymous with a lighthearted approach to life, seizing the moment without a care for tomorrow, Horace's tone is actually more cautionary about the transient nature of time. There is also the simple and direct message of 17th century English poet, Robert Herrick's opening lines from To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time ...
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1623
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The transiency and the fragility of human life has been a favorite subject for artists for centuries. Memento mori (translates from Latin as remember you must die) paintings were a genre that developed as a category of still-life painting in Western art in the 17th century. Moralizing canvases depicting skulls, extinguished candles, hour-glasses, pocket watches or clocks, flowers and even vegetables were reminders of the inevitability of death.

Jacques de Gheyn II, Vanitas Still Life, 1603
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
There is another term that is used in reference to these types of paintings, vanitas. While memento mori paintings reminded the viewer of the shortness of life, vanitas paintings including musical instruments, books and sumptuous objects focused on the futility of earthly delights.  Vanitas Still Life by De Gheyn, a Netherlandish draftsman, is considered to be the earliest example of a vanitas painting. The symbols in this painting are explained in the Metropolitan Museum of Art website as:
The skull, large bubble, cut flowers, and smoking urn refer to the brevity of life, while images floating in the bubble - such as a wheel of torture and a leper's rattle - Spanish coins, and a Dutch medal refer to human folly. The figures flanking the arch above are Democritus and Heraclitus, the laughing and weeping philosophers of ancient Greece.1

Edward Collier, Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes', 1696
(Tate Britain)
Although the underlying message is dark, vanitas painting allowed artists to display their mastery in representations of different surfaces, materials and textures. The description for Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' at the Tate website provides more details about vanitas paintings:
In this still-life painting the musical instruments, wine and jewels represent the fleeting pleasures of life, while the skull and hour-glass symbolize the inevitability of death. The open book shows a brief poem emphasizing the theme of mortality. The Latin inscription in the top left corner comes from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'. This is why such pictures are known as vanities paintings.2 

Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Porcelain Bowl and Nautilus Cup, 1660
(Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid)
Still Life with a Porcelain Bowl and Nautilus Cup  has many of the symbols that can be found in other Baroque vanitas paintings such as the peeled lemon as well as the watch alluding to the passage of time. The half-eaten fruit is supposed to refer to the transient nature of life. While there are religious connotations associated with Protestant principles, that the affluent Dutch merchant class felt a need to remind themselves, to these paintings, there is also a contradiction since the paintings themselves became the very things the viewer was being cautioned about - beautiful, expensive earthly possessions displaying their owners affluence and learning.

Juan de Valdes Leal, Allegory of Vanity,1660
(Wadsworth Atheneum)
It wasn't only the Protestants who moralized about the transience of life or the futility of pursuing earthly pleasures, in their vanitas paintings, Juan de Valdes Leal, the co-founder of the Seville Academy of Art was probably one of the most dramatic practitioners of the genre.  In the Wadsworth canvas Valdes Leal actually paints the Allegory of Vanity, that not only includes the trappings from material possessions to fame and power but also intellectual and artistic pursuits. The painting of the Last Judgement revealed behind the curtain is the final reminder of the end of the world and fate of all humankind. 

Finis Gloriae Mundi (End of the World's Glory), 1672
(Hospital de la Caridad- Charity Hospital, Seville) 

Two of Valdés Leal's works, End of the World's Glory and In the Blink of an Eye, that he painted for the Hospital de la Carded that took care of and burried the elderly and destitute are works that should hang in every palace, mansion or official residence of every dignitary across the world.

In Ictu Ocili (In the Blink of an Eye), 1672
(Hospital de la Caridad- Charity Hospital, Seville) 

If the Northern European artists utilized beautiful flowers and luxurious objects to convey the message that life on earth was merely a preparation for the afterlife, the Spanish Baroque artists painted bodegónes with raw vegetables and dead animals displayed austerely in front of a stark, dark background. 

Juan Sánchez Cotán, Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits, 1602
(Museo del Prado, Madrid)

The word Bodegón was derived from bodega, meaning tavern, wine-cellar or pantry. Although lacking skulls or skeletons, bodegónes containing everyday objects and foodstuffs found in pantries are interpreted by art historians as having a moralizing vanitas component, which is why I decided to include them in this post. Juan Sánchez Cotán is an enigmatic artist who chose to close his workshop and join a monastery; scholars tend to interpret his still-lifes as the artist renouncing worldly goods.

Pablo Picasso, Black Jug and Skull, 1946
(Tate Britain) 
Skipping several centuries, there are very striking contemporary examples of the momento mori and vanitas traditions in art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Made after World War II, Picasso's Black Jug and Skull is a modern vanitas, with the book alluding to excessive pride through learning, wine jug to temporary pleasure and the skull to death. I encountered my favorite vanitas work at the Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis exhibition at the Frick Collection in 2014. The work I am referring to was not one of the Dutch masterpieces but was included to complement the exhibition - Transforming Still Life Painting by Ron and Nick Carter. Inspired by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder's Vase with Flowers in a Window, c. 1618, this was a three-hour film that was the visual manifestation of the transient nature of earthly earthly existence. 3

Ron and Nick Carter, Transforming Still Life Painting
The picture Rob and Nick Carter start their digital painting with is a vase full of flowers recalling the Dutch tradition of still life paintings of a variety of flowers that would not be found in nature blooming at the same time, sitting in a windowsill, in front of a bright blue-skied landscape. As one stands in front of the work, insects start to fly around and flowers begin to wilt and eventually night falls over the landscape.

Transforming Still Life Painting at the Mauritshuis from Rob and Nick Carter on Vimeo.

Finally, I guess I must conclude with a modern-day momento mori with an actual skull, the very contreversial For the Love of God by Damien Hirst. According to the artist's website, the provocative work is made with 32 platinum plates and set with 8,601 VVS to flawless pavé-set diamonds, weighing 1,106.18 carats. The work has a convoluted history with the highest asking price for a living artist of £50 million in its inaugural exhibition in London. 
The work was supposedly sold to an anonymous consortium (which included the artist himself) for the full asking price paid in cash. The reason this piece belongs among such great works of art produced throughout centuries is because it represents our contemporary society, the art world and its values so perfectly. I hope the people who do invest in such pieces of "art" also own a momento mori or two to really contemplate their own mortality and what they can and can't take with them when they die. 

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007

1 Metropolitan Museum of Art Website , (link)
2 Tate Galley Website, (link)
3 The Frick Collection, (link)

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