Art Term

Memento mori

A memento mori is an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life

Pablo Picasso, ‘Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle’ 1952
Pablo Picasso
Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle 1952
Tate
© Succession Picasso/DACS 2017

Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’. A basic memento mori painting would be a portrait with a skull but other symbols commonly found are hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit, and flowers.

Closely related to the memento mori picture is the vanitas still life. In addition to the symbols of mortality these may include other symbols such as musical instruments, wine and books to remind us explicitly of the vanity (in the sense of worthlessness) of worldly pleasures and goods. The term originally comes from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’

The vanitas and memento mori picture became popular in the seventeenth century, in a religious age when almost everyone believed that life on earth was merely a preparation for an afterlife. However, modern artists have continued to explore this genre.

Related terms and concepts

Art Term

Vanitas

A still life artwork which includes various symbolic objects designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the ...

Art Term

Still life

One of the principal genres (subject types) of Western art – essentially, the subject matter of a still life painting ...

Selected artworks in the collection