Humans have always had an obsession when it comes to death and the afterlife. It’s the question of what’s next and the distinct mystery and fear of what surrounds our passing. Interest peaks at this time of year as the world celebrates Halloween and then The Day of the Dead on November 1.
Memento mori jewelry is the name given to specific jewelry pieces created in the 16th century as a reminder of the inevitability of death. The pieces also serve as a reminder to live piously. Reminiscent of things like coffins, skeletons, and skulls ranging in mostly gold, black, and white, memento mori jewelry has made a name for itself as the ‘jewelry of death and mortality.’
The Latin phrase ‘memento mori’ roughly translates to ‘remember you must die.’ Many might see this as a threat and might be hesitant to wear it. But the historical omnipresence of this kind of jewelry is undeniable. Text expressing thoughts on mortality, remembrance, and religion in Latin, French, or English were either engraved or enameled somewhere on the piece or even hidden inside or on the back. Making it only viewable by the intended recipient.
Memento mori jewelry gave way to mourning jewelry in the 17th and 18th centuries. These pieces were meant to honor the recently-deceased loved ones. However, some jewelry remains to be a fusion of the two styles. These particular pieces of mourning were ideally seen to have a more religious significance. By wearing skulls and coffins, it wasn’t a threat of death but instead a reminder to fellow Christians that alongside the inevitable death also comes the judgment day that they all must face. Therefore, the memento mori were reminders of the eternal nature of death and a reminder to live a virtuous life. By doing so, they would ideally go to heaven rather than hell.
Check out these popular memento mori pieces of jewelry that are on display or being stored in museums worldwide.
Skeletons as Pendants
A great example of early memento mori jewelry is this pendant from the 16th century. Showcased in the Victoria and Albert Museum is an enameled skeleton inside a coffin. Its methodical symbolism conveys the importance of life and its beauty through the detailed design on the coffin’s lid. The inscription reads, “Through faith, peace can be found at the end of life.” Such a declaration indicates that the wearer believed there was no need to be afraid of death.
Only Time Will Tell
A skull icon is probably the most prominent motif whenever it comes to memento mori jewelry. This piece from 1660, currently housed at the British Museum, is surprisingly a watch hidden in the skull’s interior. The style of watches being a part of memento mori jewelry was a popular trend, as it represents the celebration of both life and death. This example is striking with its details, including the various Latin phrases seen all over the skull’s surface. All of these features translate to the constant reminder of the owner’s mortality. Time is precious, and therefore it should not be wasted.
Grief Seen in Rings
This gold and enameled memento mori thumb ring is said to be from 1525-1575 AD. Gemstones can be seen embellished all over the piece, as well as on the upper side. The bezel is in the form of a closed book, while the shank features what looks like shoulders and clasped hands. On the upper side is a white skull between four gemstones. A ruby, emerald, sapphire, and a diamond. These represent the Fall from Grace and Expulsion from Eden. An inscription seen on the ring can be translated to say, “For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord.” It is currently on display at the British Museum.
Death is an equalizer among all of us. We all must die, and it is a common understanding. Remembering that we are only mortal has driven us as humans to strive diligently to create a legacy and to not be lost in time. Some of the greatest works of art have been caused by our need to be remembered. This memento mori jewelry can be just that. They are pieces that can be used to commemorate a loved one and remind us that we will meet them again. Jewelry can be a window into the lives of the people who created, owned, and inspired it to be what it is today.
Interested in other spooky topics in the world of jewelry? Check out these blog posts from years past.