Monday, July 21, 2008

Memento Mori

So, as I mentioned earlier this month, I ended up making a few skull pendants inspired by the ferryman's guerdon, the coin that the newly dead were required to pay to Charon so that he would take them across the river Styx into Hades. I believe that the actual coin used in funerals for so many years (placed either over the eyes or in the mouth of the deceased) was a Greek obolos, but I decided to re-interpret the coin in my own design.

It seems to me that people either love skull designs or they find them too morbid to be attractive. I clearly fall in the former camp. The history of memento mori (loosely translated as "a reminder of one's mortality") dates back hundreds of years. Nowadays, you see memento mori style skull designs most commonly in connection with Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations (and I must admit that I love these stylized, often floral skull designs). However, there is also a longstanding European tradition of depicting skulls as memento mori in art, literature and adornment. Think of the Danse Macabre, for example, which originated as a medieval allegory on the vanity of earthly life. Jewelry also often contained skull designs. I read somewhere that Elizabeth I had a skull ring among her substantial jewelry stash (but of course I can't remember the source for that, so it's probably best to take it as hearsay - anyone have any information on this?)

I discussed the Hamlet-inspired coin in my previous post, but I thought I'd go ahead and show you the other two coins, that have nothing to do with Shakespeare. When considering what words to stamp on these coins, I considered and rejected a number of possibilities. I ultimately decided that "vanitas", Latin for "vanity" and a reference to a related genre in which images of mortality - be they skulls, hourglasses or dying flowers - are incorporated, would be appropriate. For the other, I chose two different quotations, the first of which is "acta est fabula" which, loosely translated from the Latin, means "the play is done".

For the second, I chose "et in Arcadia ego", a rather famous memento mori phrase, the meaning of which has been debated, but which I loosely translate as "even in Arcadia I exist". "Arcadia" refers to a sort of pastoral paradise and, thus, the quote suggests that death comes even in paradise.

So, these are my first efforts at creating memento mori pendants. If you would like to see other examples of memento mori beads and jewelry, you may wish to view Melanie Brooks Lukacs's work at Earthenwood Studio, Joan Miller's beads at Joan Miller Porcelain, and Michele Goldstein's work. If anyone has any other sources for memento mori artist beads, please do leave a comment.

Thanks for stopping by!


laurelmoon said...

Oh, these are just fantastic. I love pendants with inscriptions, and memento mori--these are amazing. And the idea of coins for the passage...what a great concept!

Will you be putting these in your Etsy shop?

Melissa J. Lee said...

Thanks, Laurel! These were another one of those designs that I thought only I would like, so I really appreciate your feedback! (Two of them should end up in my Etsy store, but it will probably take me a few more days to get them there.)