Memento Mori I (The Ambassadors)

The Ambassadors-Hans Holbein The Younger 1533
Memento Mori (Latin: Remember you will die) was a popular theme in Renaissance Art in the 16th and 17th Centuries. A Memento Mori would serve as a visual reminder of the brevity of life, the vanity of worldly pomp and the  emptiness of fleeting pleasures and thus an injunction to contemplate the eternal verities of the Afterlife. The richly symbolic items found in these paintings and in the overlapping still-life genre Vanitas are skulls, time-pieces, flowers, rotting fruit, musical instruments, bubbles, candles and smoke.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s brilliantly accomplished dual portrait of Jean Dinterville, French Ambassador to the court of King Henry VIII and Georges De Selve, Bishop of Lavaur and French Ambassador to the Emperor and the Holy See is surely his masterpiece. Entire books have been written about the political, religious and scientific symbolism of the various items on the table between the two men, however the most remarkable feature for the purposes of this post is the spectacular anamorphic skull that floats in the foreground. The painting is on display at the National Gallery in London and viewers have to approach from the right for the distortion to be corrected. There are several competing theories as to why Holbein gave the skull such prominence and is distorted in such a manner if seen straight on. My opinion is that the skull serves it’s traditional function as a Memento Mori, for even such supremely self assured and worldly gentleman as the Ambassadors must one day die, no matter how much you may obscure the fact.

Detail of the Anamorphic Skull -The Ambassadors

Dreams of Desire 39 (Sleeping Venus)

Paul Delvaux-Sleeping Venus 1944

Another troubling erotic reverie by Paul Delvaux, that features a trademark sensuously reclining nude against an oppressive night-time setting. Delvaux later explained that it was painted during the wartime Nazi occupation of Brussels and he wanted to contrast the anguish of the period with the calm of Venus.

Also notable  is the presence of the skeleton, another frequent motif in Delvaux’s work, and references the Death and the Maiden theme that has been a feature of Western Art since the Renaissance and is related to the memento mori and vanitas genres.