Memento mori

I don’t know how I ended up talking about art appreciation and famous paintings during one of my Written Communication lessons. When I asked my students to name a painting, nearly all said ‘Mona Lisa’ (I was quite chaffed when one said ‘Starry Night’ by van Gogh and another mentioned ‘The Scream’ by Munch). So I decided to take a detour during my lesson to show them some famous paintings and explain the significance of some of these to them. As we wandered quickly through Monet and Picasso, Titian and Rembrandt, I showed them one of my favourites: ‘The Ambassadors’ by Holbein. I explained that (among other things) this was an example of vanitas art, which was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Tucked somewhere in these paintings, amongst common objects of beauty such as a mandolin or a bowl of fruits would be some kind of symbol of mortality, ranging from the most obvious like a skull, to more subtle ones such as an hourglass or a flower losing its petals. These memento mori (from the Latin phrase: “Remember you shall die”) are meant as constant reminders to the viewer of the temporal and passing nature of human existence. Can you find the skull in Holbein’s painting?



~ by irwin on June 10, 2009.

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