Memento Mori is a Latin phrase, freely translated as “Remember that you are mortal,” “Remember you will die,” or “Remember your death.” The idea of memento mori and its symbolism were rarely used in classical antiquity. Instead, the saying carpe diem, or “seize the day,” was popular, reminding people to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.” The expression memento mori developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife. The phrase is associated with a genre of artistic creations that vary widely from one another. The imagery related to memento mori, however, shares the same purpose: to remind viewers of their own mortality.
In the Christian context, memento mori serves a moralizing purpose, unlike the pagan idea of seizing the day. For Christians, thoughts of death remind them of the emptiness and transience of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, which will be insignificant in the afterlife. A Biblical injunction often associated with memento mori reads in omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis (the Vulgate’s Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40), or “in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.”
Recurrent iconographic symbols related to memento mori were first created during the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most striking (and recognizable to contemporary viewers) are the hourglass, the skull, the Grim Reaper with his scythe, and a decayed corpse pictured as a skeleton. Even though contemporary viewers may interpret the symbols differently than those of earlier centuries, the works in this section show that memento mori imagery has become ingrained into Western culture as a reminder of the ephemeral aspect of human life.