Memento Mori: Remember That You Must Die!

In honor of Halloween and Día de los Muertos, we've dug up some of our most ghoulish art! The theme of memento mori presents a visual reminder of the ephemerality of human existence and is an artistic tradition that dates back to antiquity.

Memento Mori

Jean Morin (French, 1612–1650). After Philippe de Champaigne (French, 1602–1674). Memento Mori, ca. 1650. Etching and engraving. Museum purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. 1994.13

The Latin phrase memento mori literally means, "Remember that you must die." The phrase has its origins in ancient Rome, where it is believed that slaves accompanying generals on victory parades whispered the words as a reminder of their commander’s mortality, to prevent them from being consumed by hubris (excessive pride and self-confidence). The concept has become a familiar trope in the visual arts from the medieval period to the present.

In Christian contexts, the memento mori acquired a moralizing purpose, urging the faithful to turn away from fleeting earthly pleasures and focus instead on the afterlife.

Unidentified artist. Bead from chaplet (memento mori)—skull with face of Jesus, 16th century. Boxwood. Gift of Albert C. Hooper. 41751

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, artists frequently incorporated symbols of mortality into their paintings, from obvious imagery such as skulls to more subtle references such as wilting flowers or timepieces.

Johann Melchior Gutwein (German, active 1727–1733). Vanitas, vanitatum, ca. 1727–1733. Engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.30.28497

The vanitas still life, popular during the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, combined symbols of mortality with sumptuous depictions of material riches to create moral allegories about the follies of human vanity and the permanence of death.

Still life

Gerrit Willemsz Heda (Dutch, d. 1702). Still Life, 1636. Oil on panel. Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection. 1942.12

Another variant of the theme, the danse macabre (or dance of death), is a late-medieval allegory of the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the dance of death unites all. The danse macabre consists of a skeletal Grim Reaper leading dancing figures of all ages and from all walks of life to the grave. The earliest graphic depictions of the danse macabre appeared in the 15th century, but the genre has persisted to the present day.

Danse macabre

Leonie Justin Alexandre Petit (French, 1839–1884). Leonie Justin Alexandre Petit, engraver. (French, 1839–1884). La danse macabre, ca. 1875. Etching. Bequest of John Gutmann. 2000.119.3.37

Recently acquired, this contemporary interpretation of the memento mori by pioneering Bay Area Abstract Expressionist Walter Kuhlman is a study in opposites. The airy and glittering creature floating on the right—perhaps an embodiment of the pleasures and ephemerality of existence—contrasts starkly with the oppressive form of the enshrouded skull, a traditional symbol of mortality. Recalling the spare and psychologically charged canvases of Nordic Expressionist painters such as Edvard Munch, Kuhlman’s Memento Mori evokes the imminence of physical decay while simultaneously celebrating the immediacy and vitality of life.

Memento Mori

Walter Kuhlman (American, 1918–2009). Memento Mori, 1973–1974. Oil on canvas. Gift of Gary Spratt. 2009.76

Happy Halloween!