Friday, October 21, 2005


We seem to be getting a bit far afield from rosaries, but considering the interesting phenomenon of rosaries that use skulls (as they occasionally do) leads naturally to consideration of the other skull and skeleton "keepsakes" that are relatively common in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Especially since it's October :)

Another such "memento mori" object is the miniature coffin, which often opens to show a skeleton. Probably one of the better-known examples is the so-called Torre Abbey jewel from England (1540-1550, museum no. 3581-1856), now in the Victoria and Albert museum.

Torre Abbey

The point of having such a memento was that by remembering that death was inevitable and unpredictable, you would be motivated to live a virtuous life. This continued to be fashionable right through the 16th century.

Another example from the Victoria & Albert, which is rather more decorative with a fancy chain decorated with pairs of crossed bones, and colored black and white with enamel, is this one:


The museum's commentary notes that by the middle of the 17th century, the focus of skull, coffin and skeleton symbolism had changed -- from an abstract contemplation of death as motivation for virtue to commemorating the deaths of specific people, generally family members or loved ones.

The fashion began to turn then from memento-mori's toward mourning jewelry, with dates, initials or names, and eventually to such things as Victorian "hair jewelry" made from hair from the deceased. The impulse to create "relics," in the same way the Middle Ages treasured bits of hair, bone or clothing from saints, seems to be a recurring theme. Popular symbolism also turned from skulls and coffins toward weeping women, willow trees, gravestones and broken columns as symbols of loss.

But we are still in the Middle Ages in this discussion, and I found another very interesting coffin while roaming around in the Marburg Index, which I thought I'd share. Here is an overview:


According to the museum notes, this is ivory, from Western Switzerland around 1520. Like most of the memento-mori's I've been discussing, it's now in the Schnütgen Museum in Köln (Cologne), Germany. The skeleton is enclosed in a "box" composed of a solid base and lid in a rather eye-blinding black-and-white pattern, and open sides with narrow columns and wide spaces.

What's particularly notable about this one is that the skeleton isn't completely reduced to bones, but retains some "muscle tissue"(?) depicted in ivory on the top side, and through a hole in the stomach some "internal organs" can be seen.


I suppose ivory is such a wonderful material that it manages to make even such revolting details look eerily beautiful, but my modern sense of appropriateness still says "Eeeeeuuuuwwwwwww!"

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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