Early Memento Mori

May 16, 2010

In many ways, memento mori needs to be demystified and a good reminder of this is the below quote from Becker:

“Late sixteenth and seventeenth century rings often had an enamelled skull on a flat bezel, or on one seventeenth or early eighteenth century German example, a full-shaped, enamelled and jewelled skull bezel which swivelled to show a plump lady’s face, rather fleshy and full of life on the other side. A very stark and chastening reminder to any vain eighteenth century beauty!

The theme of passing time also played an important part in Memento Mori ornament, introducing such symbols as the scythe and hour-glass to recall the fact that time could run out at any moment. Some sixteenth century watches were made as Memento Mori pendants to emphasise the importance of time, and were shaped as skulls. In his engravings published in 1559 Pierre Woeiriot included a pendant incorporating a skull in the pattern. Other pendants were designed as miniature enamelled coffins, opening to reveal a detailed corpse or skeleton inside.”

I’ve been watching eBay lately and people have been selling faux memento mori pieces under the very powerful implication of their being real. These pieces are so obviously modern that it goes beyond saying, however, many of these pieces have been fetching several thousands of dollars. It’s quite disparaging to the collector and historian, but please take note that as Becker quite rightly points out, many of these pieces were worn not for a morbidity or for memorialisation, but for a statement of living, so many of the affectations that the non-historian may buy these for (surrounding simply ‘death’) is quite incorrect.

Yet this doesn’t take away from the number of troublesome forgeries being sold as a high rate, with crude memento mori motifs (mostly skulls, they sell higher) populating the planet.

If my writing has done anything but irritate, I hope it leaves you with the knowledge enough to question everything. Scrutinise what you see before you and trust no one that wants to make money from you.

One Response to “Early Memento Mori”


  1. You are so right about all the fakes Hayden i have seen some oh so very obvious fakes at 1st rate antique shows. The biggest culprits are fake eye pieces and fake skulls! While it can sometimes be hard to judge , there are some obvious clues and by looking and studying the real thing, one can learn to spot the obvious fakes. I have seen eye brooches in “gate bracelet locks,” which is obviously wrong, and I have seen some really garish, modern skulls. Sometime price can be a factor too. If the piece is too cheap, learn why. Sometimes people sell things because they’ve had them a long time and they need or want the money for something else. That is a bargain, but otherwise if the piece is too cheap, it is probably a fake.


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