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Memento mori refers to a wide range of elements in art with the purpose of reminding the audience of their own eventual death. Memento mori may be the theme or an entire piece, or it may be a small element, such as a diminutive skull in the corner of a painting. Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “Remember you are mortal.”
While memento mori is sometimes thought to convey the message “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die,” in European Christian art, in which it abounds, it is more often a reminder of the vanity of earthly glory and pleasure. For this reason, still life paintings were formerly known as Vanitas, as they customarily included a memento mori of some sort. Common memento mori figures used in such paintings include skulls, hourglasses, snuffed candles, flowers or fruit past their prime, and insects. They are often subtly and cleverly worked into an elaborate still life.
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