The themes of vanitas and memento mori or memento vivere deal with imagery as a visual reminder of the ephemerality of human existence. The Latin phrase memento mori literally means, "Remember that you must die."
The phrase has its origins in ancient Rome, where it is believed that slaves accompanying generals on victory parades whispered the words as a reminder of their commander’s mortality, to prevent them from being consumed by hubris (excessive pride and self-confidence).
In Christian contexts, memento mori acquired a moralising purpose, urging the faithful to turn away from fleeting earthly pleasures and focus instead on the afterlife. 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.’
In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, artists frequently incorporated symbols of mortality into their paintings, from obvious imagery such as skulls to more subtle references such as wilting flowers or timepieces. Related to this concept is the vanitas still life, popular during the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age, that combined symbols of mortality with sumptuous depictions of material riches to create moral allegories about the follies of human vanity and the permanence of death. 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.
Another variant of the theme, the danse macabre (or dance of death), is a late-medieval allegory of the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the dance of death unites all. The danse macabre consists of a skeletal Grim Reaper leading dancing figures of all ages and from all walks of life to the grave. The earliest graphic depictions of the danse macabre appeared in the 15th century, but the genre has persisted to the present day.
The concept has become a familiar trope in the visual arts from the medieval period to the present. Contemporary artists continue to explore this genre.
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