Thursday, August 04, 2005


I admit it: I'm a Harry Potter fan. You'd think this would have nothing to do with medieval rosaries, wouldn't you?

However, while again cruising the Marburg Foto Archive, I ran across some horridly fascinating little ivory sculptures that immediately put me in mind of Voldemort.

Mori sideways

I'd seen these two pieces before: they're featured in 500 Jahre Rosenkranz, the 1975 exhibition catalog from Köln (Cologne). This is a type of little sculpture called a "Memento Mori", which literally means "remember death." On one side is the face of a living person, and on the other, a skull -- frequently a grinning skull!

(For those who haven't read the Harry Potter books, the first appearance of the villain, Lord Voldemort, is as a disembodied face on the back of Professor Quirrell's head. This is not the only place where author J. K. Rowling is drawing on the vast store of traditional European story-motifs, some of them quite old indeed.)

Medieval skull imagery is not something I deliberately set out to investigate, but I'm intrigued by how I keep tripping over it anyway. In the same collection as the two sculptures above, I ran across an entire string of little Memento-moris that have been formed into a sort of rosary. These pieces are in Köln, but while most of the rosaries in Köln's famous collection are in the diocesan museum, these are from the Schnütgen museum across town.

Memento-mori string
Mori-string 1

To me this does not appear to be an actual rosary. The arrangement doesn't particularly make sense -- why is the extra cross between two beads, rather than at the end? Why are there two beads between some sculptures and only one between others? I strongly suspect that, like the filigree beads I mentioned earlier this week, this originated as a bunch of loose pieces that someone has made into a string.

Mori-string 2

The top bead in particular does not look to me as though it's done in the same artistic style as the others. It's also the only one of the five without a skull: it appears to have a man's face and a woman's back to back, presumably Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. The other four ivories are much more worn down and seem to be much less meticulously carved. The carved cross at the bottom and the metal beads may or may not have had anything to do with the other pieces originally.

There are several more of these Memento-moris at the Schnütgen museum, and we'll take a closer look at them soon.

Posts in this series:

Death's head devotions
Skully bits
Skulls: the inside story
Skulls: the inside story, part 2
Skulls: the inside story, part 3
Voldemort, part 2
A skull of one's own
More living color

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