The Most Gothic Jewellery of All: Memento Mori
Happy Halloween everyone!
We can’t believe it’s the end of our 2020 Halloween series already!
Today, we're dedicating our attention to the most spooktacular type of jewellery there is: Memento Mori.
Gold Signet Memento Mori Ring, Inscribed "MEMENTO MORI", c.1600-1700, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Memento Mori was a style of mourning jewellery that was very popular between the 14th and 17th centuries. Characterised by their striking skulls and moralistic messages, Memento Mori was worn by aristocrats, priests and royalty. In fact, these actually evolved into the 18th and 19th century mourning jewellery that we know and love. Yet, unlike the Victorian’s mourning jewellery, memento mori was slightly different.
But how different?
Let’s find out!
What Is Memento Mori Jewellery?
Memento mori jewellery is possibly the most Gothic, Halloween-esque jewellery we could think of to celebrate the spookiest day of the year!
“Memento Mori” is the latin inscription for “Remember You Must Die”.
First appearing in the 14th century, Memento mori was an artistic and symbolic reminder of the inevitably of death. Now, to the modern eye, it sounds very morbid, why would you want to always be reminded of death?? But in the 14th century, death was everywhere, so it was a far more common occurrence, and there was less anxiety surrounding it. Whether from plague, famine or war, the average life expectancy for someone in the 14th century was roughly only 33 years.
Portrait of a Man (Memento Mori), Andrea Previtali, c.1470-1528, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Memento Mori was inherently moralising, rather than to scare or place fear in the hearts of people’s minds. People actually WANTED to be reminded of death, as it will help them treasure their life and improve and dedicate their service to God. The 14th to 16th century was heavily indoctrinated with Christianity.
The Roman Catholic church, in particular, was at the centre of provincial life. Memento Mori was utilised by both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant church, as well as also being included within secular humanist beliefs too. With this in mind, Memento Mori was present in virtually everything, from gravestone designs to architecture, illustrated manuscripts and furnishings. One of the most famous 16th century paintings that clearly displays Memento Mori is Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” where a large anamorphic skull protrudes across the canvas. In other artistic decorations Memento Mori took the forms of wilted flowers, skulls, angels, worms, graves, clocks and bats. Each symbol was a poignant reminder of how short life is.
The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1533, Source - Wikimedia Commons
In jewellery, the most common form of Memento Mori was rings, yet you can also find Memento Mori rosaries and pendants. Stunning surviving relics show detailed black and white Enamel, with crosses, skulls, gemstones and latin inscriptions. Many of these symbols are instantly recognisable today, so we may underestimate how much of a statement it was to wear these jewels and symbols at the time. They were not only a statement of a person’s philosophical beliefs but also of how they aspired to be better and how they wanted to be shown within society.
Enamel Gold Ruby Skull Ring, c.1550-75, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Our favourite historic Memento Mori pieces
This pendant is believed to have been crafted between 1540-1550 and was part of the V&A’s first preliminary collections, bought in 1856 for £21 (today that would be £1,600). This pendant has the inscription “Through the Resurrection of Christ, We Will Be Sanctified”, a classic Memento Mori symbol. This phrase tells us not to fear death and that when Christ comes again, all of our sufferings will be worth it.
It was believed that this pendant was found in the grounds of Torre Abbey in Devon, which alludes to the dark history of the dissolution of the monasteries, a time in Tudor history where Henry VIII ordered all of the monasteries to be pillaged.
Torre Abbey Jewel, c.1540-1550, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Another striking Memento Mori pendant, this piece has an incredible bone studded structure interlinked with the Gold chain. It is believed that this pendant was a crafted in 1660. This pendant has the German inscription “HIE. LIEG. ICH. VND. WARTH. AVF. DIH” which today translates “Here I lie and wait for you”. This could either be interpreted as a morbid and foreboding symbol of death always waiting, or as a romantic piece of early mourning jewellery.
Gold Enamel Memento Mori Pendant, c.1660, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
This Renaissance Memento Mori gimmel ring is absolutely spectacular! Dated to 1631, like the pendant above, this ring is of Germanic origin. This ring, like other Memento Mori pieces wanted to prompt the owners to meditate on the vanity of earthly pursuits. This message is concealed within this ring’s secret chambers. It is believed that this ring was once owned by the Rothschild family and is complete with a table cut Diamond and Ruby, surrounded by a sea of vivid Enamel. The ring head can be opened to reveal one tiny enamel baby on one side and a baby skeleton on the other. The inscription on the ring shank reads “Whom God has joined together, let no man tear asunder”.
Renaissance Memento Mori Gimmel Ring, c.1631, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This medallion shows that Memento Mori was also used to decorate interiors as it was believed that this piece was intended to decorate Preston Hall in Suffolk. Researchers at the V&A surmise that the Robert Ryece commissioned the piece. Ryece was a member of a strongly puritan protestant gentry. This clearly shows how Memento Mori easily translated between both religious sides. This roundel was meant to replace damaged stained glass (which was likely due iconoclastic violence), and the preferred images were those of moral messages. The choice of subject within this roundel is also reminiscent of the Vanitas paintings, with a orderly skull, hourglass, candle and open book. The ribbon scroll has the inscription “VITAE IMMORTALIS STUDIO MORS TEMNITUR ATRA”, which loosely translates to the” immortal study of death”, “despise'' and “everywhere”.
Enamel Glass Roundel, c.1600, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
This ring in the British Museum is a more flamboyant and vibrant version of a memento mori jewellery, nevertheless it has the defining characteristic of a white skull at the centre. The ring shank looks like something out of a medieval purgatory painting, with naked bodies of men and women and hands clasping one another. The ring head is a book, which opens up to reveal another figure in despair, with an hourglass and skull underneath. This is believed to be a literally representation of Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. There is a Latin enamel inscription which means “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord”
French Memento Mori Bejewelled Finger Ring, c.1525-1575, Source - The British Museum
And last, but certainly not least, we have this classic Memento Mori signet ring. Signet rings were worn by men of esteemed rank, and in many cases they were used to stamp and seal letters. It is unknown as to whether this signet ring had that function, but just imagine receiving a letter with an imprint of a skull and the latin “FOELIX. CONCORDIA. FRATVRM”, - “a happy concord of brothers”. This ring was crafted in the 17th century, so actually far from the Catholic and Protestant influences that clearly are embedded within the earlier creations. The latin inscription is one of a happier tone,
17th Century Gold Memento Mori Signet Ring, Source - British Museum
Today, Memento Mori symbolism is still common in some more esoteric jewellery creations, and has been a stylistic influence for avant-garde designers like Alexander Mcqueen.
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The Significance and Meaning of Memento Mori Jewellery
But what did Memento Mori mean?
To begin with, Memento Mori jewellery was all about discipline. Simply glancing down your finger, you could be easily reminded of how transient and fleeting life is, with death truly only round the corner. In the context of the heavily Christian Middle Ages, Memento Mori was very very significant, easily absorbing the values of heaven and hell, salvation of the soul and the afterlife. Essentially, if you lived a chaste and moral life and did God’s bidding, you would be granted heaven rather than hell.
German Ivory and Silver Rosary, c.1500-1525, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
However, Memento Mori jewellery soon became much more than that. During the, 14th, 15th and 16th century, the Catholic church went through one of its most turbulent periods. From the Great Schism (1378-1418) to the Protestant reformation (1517), there was an increasing lack of faith within the church, their authority over the land, and the belief that the Popes were divinely ordained.
Not to mention, the 14th, 15th and 16th century also saw plenty of war, like the 100 years war in France (1337-1453), the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), the Ottoman-Hapsburg Wars (1521-1718), and the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598). On top of this, there was also the Black Death as well! All of this culminated in a lack of trust in governments, kings, the Church and God. You can just imagine the emotional and physical toll this would have on a person. And, interestingly, it led to Memento Mori jewellery becoming more established.
17th Century Enamelled Skull Pendant with Baptism of Christ Scene, The Werhner Collection, Source - English Heritage
Despite all of the unrest, the constant reminder of death was not depressing, it made them treasure their life on earth more. For them, death was the only constant, especially when religion and governments were failing them. This may seem weird to us now, but if Memento Mori hadn’t existed, then the very collectable and also very fascinating Victorian and Georgian mourning jewellery wouldn’t have existed either.
By the end of the 16th and into the 17th century, another shift began to occur. Memento Mori became even more of a fashion, as well as philosophical, statement. The French wars of religion meant that many Huguenots (French Protestants) emigrated to Protestant England in the 17th century. A wealth of these Huguenots were talented French Goldsmiths, meaning that Memento Mori jewellery, and jewellery of other kinds, were vastly available to the public!
In addition to this, Memento Mori also trickled into the art scene with Latin “Vanitas” paintings. These still-life paintings were littered with candles, skulls, wilted flowers, soap bubbles, butterflies and hourglasses, all reminders of the importance of the self in accordance with life. This is very significant because this ‘importance of the self’ also was a reason as to why people bought and commissioned Memento Mori. People turning away from God and the Church meant that many sought comfort within themselves.
Glass Vase of Flowers, c.1667, Jacob Van Walscapelle, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Vanitas Still Life, c.1659, N.L Peschier, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Of course, the 17th century was also rife with political discord - including the overthrow of the English monarchy, the 1665 plague, 1666 Great Fire of London and the restoration. All the more reason to distrust the powers in place.
All of these factors meant that Memento Mori became more ever present and also more opulent, also in tandem with the Baroque, Rococo and Romantic movement. The Baroque Style was flamboyant and excessive, and was tied with Catholicism, meaning that religious symbols started to trickle back into Memento Mori rings and pendants. It was a fine balance between pervasive opulence and power, but also the grappling of life being difficult and finding comfort in the absolute.
So far, we have spoken about Memento Mori in the purely western European context. However, Memento Mori is still heavily present and significant in many other cultures. Notably in Mexico and in Ancient Egypt. In Mexico, the Dia des muertos “Day of the Dead” is an annual celebration that honours the Catholic celebrations of “All saints day” and is in homage to those who have died. This would cultivate in building ofrendas (home altars), which would be decorated with the possessions of the diseased, aztec marigolds, and food and drink. In the “Day of the Dead” celebrations, there is a pervasive presence of skulls, celebrating them as objects of beauty and to be revered, rather than something to be feared.
In ancient Egyptian culture, the scarab beetle was one of the most widely used amulets and talismans. The scarab was symbolic of divine manifestation, growth and immortality, and thus was an amulet that was used in many funerary rites. The “heart scarab” is a great example of this. These scarab amulets would placed within the bandages of mummies and were symbolic of the heart of the diseased. It was believed that scarabs would help rejuvenate, bring new life and bring peace to the departed souls. With this in mind, Egyptians would also wear scarabs as lucky symbols as well as reminders of life and death.
The Heart Scarab of Maruta, c.1479-1425 BCE, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
We hope you have enjoyed reading!
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading your well-researched article. It is an eye-opener for me and has changed my opinion of “morbid” jewellery.