Printer Friendly

A morbid fascination; Death, it comes to us all... so why not celebrate the fact with some macabre memorabilia?

THREE recent deaths: a family member, a friend, and a former newspaper colleague - one funeral down, two to go - got me thinking of my own mortality this week. Do I have my own affairs in order?It was one of the most moving funerals I've ever attended. No singing hymns to piped music, just the friend's favourite tunes (Rod Stewart's Handbags and Glagrags was one) and a well-crafted eulogy that reduced everyone to tears. Do I need to write my own? Morbid, I know, but for some, it's a topic to build a collection around.

They collect antiques that go by the generic title of memento mori, Latin for "Remember you will die".

Legend has it that the term originates from an ancient Roman tradition intended to stop allconquering emperors getting too big for their boots. As they basked in the glory of accolades from cheering crowds, an aide would whisper in their ear: "Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!

Memento mori!" If I recall my schoolboy Latin correctly, this translates roughly as: "Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!" " History does not recount whetherAn unusual silver-memento mori pocket watch by Guide price PS someone whispered in Caesar's ear, but come the Ides of March and it was already too late.

Throughout antiquity symbols representing death, some obvious like a skull or skeleton, some secretively subtle, have been present in paintings, jewellery and works of art.

cased musical Bailly of Paris.

Understand the symbolism and the significance of the memento mori becomes much more apparent.

8,000 In the 17th century, the majority of the population was illiterate. In order to maintain the authority of Christian belief, the church relied on these symbols to teach congregations the principles of divine judgement.

Artists responded by creating pictorial or symbolic representations of Heaven, Hell, salvation and damnation. In churches they were intended to encourage believers to reflect on their lives, make peace with their maker and prepare to meet Him. Death was never far from people's thoughts.

The rich, meanwhile, turned death into a fashion statement. The more affluent you were, the bigger your tomb and the more elaborate your headstone, as proof of your social standing and vanity.

art: A of a 1666). painted Before long memento mori found their way into their homes, with such symbols as funerary urns and temples, hourglasses, clocks, guttering or extinguished candles, specific fruit - perhaps decaying or being eaten by insects and fading flowers, some losing their petals - bubbles, smoke, and of course skulls and skeletons appearing in portraits of the scholarly and elite who commissioned them.

Such still-life paintings are termed "vanitas art" that became popular with old master artists in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. They evolved from portraiture and were sometimes painted on the reverse side, the symbols contrasting with such earthly pleasures as wine goblets, tobacco pipes and musical instruments.

Dice and playing cards representing the role of chance and fortune in life were among other symbols, while ears of wheat or corn, ivy and laurel leaves hinted at resurrection and eternal life. Rembrandt was a notable exponent.

It was then just a short step before possessions to be carried on the person followed.

The pocket watch was one favourite (Mary Queen of Scots owned a silver one, the case carved in the form of a skull), while the inscription "Tempus fugit" (Time flies) was enough to remind the owner that his time grows shorter with each passing hour.

A late Georgian memento a half length portrait of on a staff.

The watch illustrated is one of the best of its type to come onto the regional market in recent times.

Dated 1791 and numbered 127, it was made by the important London maker George Flote of Islington.

The white enamel dial is finely decorated in black with a cockerel, an owl and a skull and crossbones, flanked by a standing figure of "Father Time" and a classical female blowing a trumpet, all above a ribbon swag marked "Memento Mori".

A carved ivory memento mori with semi the form of price PS1,500-PS Inside the gilt brass case was a duplex escapement with a finely pierced and engraved clock, the centre set with a rose diamond, while the lower section was decorated with an oval profile of a gentleman, either Flote himself, or else the gentleman who commissioned it.

The movement powered the fine gold hands of a small circular dial with Arabic numerals and a large central half-second indicating sweep second hand formed as a gold arrow.

A bidding battle for ownership ensued, ironically between the eventual buyer and a disappointed specialist horology dealer who wanted to buy it back. It was the first watch he ever sold when he founded his business 45 years ago. The price then: a substantial PS1,000. The price this time out: PS9,800.

Jewellery, modest but bearing the memento mori iconography, appeared in the 17th century, while the execution of Charles I in 1649 saw Royalist supporters adding secret inscriptions and images to mourn their dead king.

Examples of such early pieces still turn up. A gold and rock crystal brooch mourning the death of Queen Mary in 1694 sold at Hansons in Etwal, Derbyshire for PS4,300.

It was set with a compartment containing a woven lock of the queen's hair and was decorated with the royal crown and two heavenly cherubs, the MR royal cipher the words Virtue and Goodness and enamelled around the edge the inscription: "Memento Maria Regina Obit 22 Decembris 94".

Georgian gold mori ring with sepia Hope leaning Sold for PS220 Mourning jewellery dating from the 19th century containing the plaited hair of the deceased is found more readily today. Most common are lockets, the reverse of which contain a lock or plait beneath a thin cover of rock crystal or glass. Often the hair is woven into intricate patterns or knots.

Georgian and Victorian mourning jewellery replaced the earlier macabre symbols with more sentimental flowers, hearts, crosses, and ivy leaves.

Decoration was usually in black enamel sometimes including pearls representing tears and sincerity and and hardstone skull inlaid precious stones in insects. Guide 2,000 often incorporating brief epithets such as "In memory of" or "Forget me not", together with memoriam inscriptions giving the deceased's name or monogram, and the date and sometimes cause of death. These are particularly poignant, especially in the case of the death of a child.

Just remember, there are no pockets in a shroud.

An unusual silver-cased memento mori skull musical pocket watch by Bailly of Paris. Guide price PS6,000-PS8,000 A watercolour by H.G. Birchall of Mary Queen of Scots holding her memento mori watch in her right hand. Sold for PS8,200 Vanitas art: A portrait of a Man Holding a Skull by Frans Hals the Elder (1582-1666). It was painted in 1615 A carved ivory and hardstone memento mori skull inlaid with semi precious stones in the form of insects. Guide price PS1,500-PS2,000 A late Georgian gold memento mori ring with a half length sepia portrait of Hope leaning on a staff. Sold for PS220


The memento mori watch by George Flote. Sold for PS9,800 Photographs: The Canterbury Auction Galleries
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Date:Aug 20, 2016
Previous Article:In the clear for autumn.
Next Article:DRINK IT.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters