Memento Mori


Skulls are reminders of both the limits to life and the seemingly everlasting impact that bones leave behind. Bones are the last things to decompose, oftentimes staying in reliquaries and crypts for centuries after the deceased’s death. A viewer confronted with a skull is forced to “memento mori,” or “remember that I will die.” The motif of skulls often serves contemplative roles in Western art. Skulls were often placed with fruit and other still life materials to make up “vanitas” paintings (a reminder of earthly vanity), while anatomical texts from the premodern period took artistic liberties with their skeletal figures to tell narratives about death rather than simply teach about the inner workings of the human form. Even trophies like Old Ephraim’s skull serve as a reminder that even the mightiest grizzly meets the same fate that we all share.