Memento Mori

How Dutch Masterpiece Paintings remind us that“You, too, must die.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1660) by Pieter ClaeszThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Memento mori are reminders of the inevitability of death... and Dutch masterpieces are full of them. Food will rot, flowers will wilt, candles burn out, and skulls...well, skulls speak for themselves. Take a look at some details in three paintings that remind us of the brevity of life.

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) by Pieter ClaeszThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The clock is always ticking and this painting holds plenty of reminders...

Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1596) by Pieter ClaeszThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

A candle, just extinguished at left, leaves a guttering wick in a trail of smoke.

Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles (ca. 1670) by Otto Marseus van SchrieckThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

This bright red poppy stands out in a scene teeming with snakes, lizards, and other shady creatures. Flowers are a classic symbol of memento mori, reminding us that they eventually wilt and die. Just as we do.

Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles (1665) by Otto Marseus van SchrieckThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Poppies in traditional Dutch still lifes were often a symbol of deep sleep, death, night, a lot of negative things. Maybe because an Oriental poppy, Papaver somniferum, is also the opium poppy. It makes you sleepy, and it can also create death.” 

 — Remco van Vliet, florist

Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware (1635) by Willem Claesz HedaThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

“This painting reminds us of the brevity of these foodstuffs ...

Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware (1635) by Willem Claesz HedaThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

“...these oysters aren’t going to last very long. You need to eat them at this moment, enjoy them now, because they will be gone before you know it. All things will be gone. The objects in this painting stand on the brink of an abyss, which is disappearance.” — Mark Doty, poet and memoirist

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