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If you have ever looked at much ancient or medieval art, you’ll notice something:
Death is everywhere.
The French painter Philippe de Champaigne’s famous “
The beautiful anonymous German engraving from 1635 that features
And this is a trend that has continued up through the modern era. One of Vincent van Gogh’s earliest works is “
Why is death so common in art?
It’s because death is common in life. And it was once even more common.
Take someone like
Even his last words. In 180 CE,
“Weep not for me,” began Marcus’s famous last words, “think rather of the pestilence and the deaths of so many others.”
It’s a constant theme in art because it’s a fact that’s as easy to forget as it is scary to think about. It’s unpleasant. And besides… given all our modern advancements in technology, isn’t it a little fatalistic? Isn’t there a chance we may live forever?
There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to wake us up from our silly fantasies.
Less than two months after the Chair of the 7th District of the New York City Council Health Committee
Maybe we all should have been a little more prepared, a little stronger and tougher… a little less convinced that we had escaped the fate of those that lived long ago.
They certainly tried to warn us, in their writing and by example.
Moses said, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Michelangelo said, “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.” The essayist Michel de Montaigne was fond of the ancient Egyptian custom where during times of festivities, a skeleton would be brought out with people cheering “Drink and be merry, for when you’re dead you will look like this.” Shakespeare wrote, “Every third thought should be my grave.” Mozart said, “As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence.” And Tolstoy said, “If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different.”
That’s over 3,000 years of wisdom on the same theme… a theme which predated and continued long after each of them… and will continue after us as well.
For most of history, memento mori was more than “art,” it was a practice. Desks were staged with skulls to remind people of the urgency of life. On their walls hung paintings of skeletons, hour glasses, extinguished candles, wilting tulips. In their pockets they carried memento mori medallions and watch keys. It “wasn’t just a generalized response to mortality,” says Elizabeth Welch, an art curator at the Blanton Museum, “but instead specifically a performative social leveling that could be used by Late Medieval Christians to think about mortality and the inevitability of physical decay.”
The physical manifestation of a memento mori helped our ancestors process the pain that followed them around each day. The bodies on the streets and battlefields didn’t create panic, but priority, humility, urgency, appreciation.
I’ve talked about my own Memento Mori,
But my real memento mori practice begins when I brush my teeth in the morning and when I brush them before bed in the evening. There, propped under my bathroom mirror, I have a chunk of an old Victorian tombstone. How it left that cemetery and came to be for sale, I don’t know and don’t want to know.
But I know that it sobers me and sets me right each time I look at it. Because the piece had just one word on it. It says, “Dad.”
Somebody who so identified with that word they wanted it on their tombstone; who lived and died and whose gravestone eventually even fell into disrepair. Who were they? How did they pass? Are they missed? Were they famous? It doesn’t matter. They are gone now. Almost certainly, they were gone too soon. They left behind a family. They will never walk or speak or love or cry again.
And so it will go for me. And so it will go for you.
I said before that this theme in art continues. One of the performance artist Marina Abramovic’s most interesting pieces
We must remember, especially now, that life is ephemeral, that life is finite, that life is fragile. This should humble us… but also empower us.
It should put everything in perspective. When my son comes to the stairs and calls me to come play, I have no problem stopping because it could be the last time that he asks me. When I think about my work and phoning it in today I think about how lucky I am to have today. So I try to live—not just during a pandemic—with the awareness that I may not be spared. That a virus has no mercy. That it does not care about what I’ve built or who I am important to.
It doesn’t care about any of us. Death is indifferent, and it is ruthlessly, inevitably victorious.
That was the purpose of the once ever-prevalent memento mori art—to remind people that death is ever-present.
This could be your last day on this planet. As wonderful as it would be if there was no such thing as death, we have to use death as a tool, we have to use it as a spur to move us forward, we have to use it as a reminder of what’s truly important and we have to be made better for the fact that we don’t know how much time we have. We never do. And we never will.
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Death is a timeless subject: no matter what is currently happening, death is constantly present in our mind: whether for fear of not losing someone we love or for fear of not dying ourselves.
However, people tend to think more about this topic whenever tragic events happen in their lives or when the worldwide situation gets scarier overall.
From Moses to Tolstov, our ancestors used to be very much focused on the subject of death.
This is mostly because understanding death means actually understanding life: in order to make the most of our time spent on earth, we must not forget that we will all eventually die.
The fact of cherishing the present time and of making the most of what we still have left to live should be the motto of our lives.
The truth is that death does not wait for us to be ready to go, it does not ask and it does not care. So, while you are still here, you might as well enjoy your life as much as you can.
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