Saturday, June 9, 2012

Memento Mori


Funny people, those Victorians.  No, not the ones south of the New South Wales border, but those who lived in England during the reign of Queen Victoria.  And by “funny”, read “creepy”.

One example of that is memento mori. 

But more of the Victorians a little later.

Memento mori is a Latin phrase that translates to “Remember your mortality” or “Remember you will die”.  From there it has come to mean a genre of artwork that reminds people of their mortality.

The phrase memento mori is believed to have originated in ancient Rome.  When a Roman general who had been successful in a foreign war entered Rome in the sacred religious and civil victory parade known as the  Triumph, it was the practice to have a slave ride in the chariot with him.  That slave had the task of whispering “memento mori” to him, to remind him that he was only a man and that although he was triumphant today, he might fall or be brought down tomorrow.  A writer, Tertullian, a Christian author from Carthage, records in his work Apologeticus (written 197AD) that the words used were  "Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!": "Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you'll die!"

The advent of Christianity saw the rise of memento mori themed art, with its emphasis on death, eternal life, judgment and the salvation of the soul.  Such art and other memento mori displays included paintings and sculptures, depicted characters such as the Grim Reaper, tombs (including the tombs made of bones and skulls), poetry, music (including requiems) and even jewellery, such as memento mori rings.

French - 16th/17th century ivory pendant, Monk and Death, recalling mortality and the certainty of death

Another ivory pendant

Which brings us to Victorian England.

The Victorian era saw the development of photography, with the daguerreotype being invented in 1839.  Photography was originally regarded as a faster and cheaper substitute for painting.  Portraits were often staged in artistic and posed settings with dressup clothing:

It wasn’t long before photography was being used to memorialise deceased loved ones, especially infants and young children.  Because Victorian era childhood mortality rates were high, a post-mortem photograph was often the only image the family could have.  The invention of multiple prints from a single negative enabled copies to be sent to other family members. 
Although such photography is described as memento mori photography, that title is strictly not correct – the purpose of these photographs was not to serve as reminder of mortality but as a memory of the deceased loved one.

Post-mortem photography of loved ones had virtually ceased by the end of the 19th century, although some were still taken well into the 20th century.

The following comments and photographs are from a website Cogitz, at:

The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include the coffin.  The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favourite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.

The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by either propping the subject's eyes open or painting pupils onto the photographic print, and many early images have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse.

Later examples show less effort at a lifelike appearance, and often show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.

Post-mortem photography is still practiced in some areas of the world, such as Eastern Europe. Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.

Some Victorian death photographs:

The above pic is interesting in that there is a double exposure of the deceased, note the image above the deceased’s head.  It is unknown whether the double exposure was deliberate or resulted from inadequate cleaning and re-use of a photographic plate.

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