Artful Skulls, Skeletons, Demons and Devils

With ghosts and goblins everywhere and Halloween just around the corner, I figured it’s a great time to talk about one of my favorite motifs in art: memento mori. Memento mori is Latin for “remember death.” The phrase is believed to have originated from an ancient Roman tradition in which a servant would stand behind a victorious general as he paraded through the streets; as the general basked in the glory of the cheering crowds, the servant would whisper in his ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” . . .  “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”

We moderns don’t like to think too much about death unless treated more as a camp statement of style, but for those living in antiquity all the way up to the beginning of the 20th century, death was seen as a motivator to live a virtuous life. To help reflect on this, artists created paintings, sculptures and mosaics depicting skulls, skeletons and other symbols of death to encourage contemplation on how you live your life. Romans also used the phrase memento mori to remind one another of the brevity of life, and that death makes us all equal . . . and to remember to live life and each day to its fullest. By honoring death, you thus honor life. The flip of Memento Mori is Carpe Diem … seize the day. Rejoice, and be glad in it!

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