The meme “Memento Mori” – Latin for “Remember Death” – reached its apogee about 1500 in Christian Europe. (Memes have been around for a long time, but the classical term is the largely forgotten “tropes.”) The idea was that by remaining constantly aware that death – and Judgment – comes to all men, Christians would lead more virtuous lives. Its related symbol – the skull or skeleton – remains with us today (especially at this time of year).

The implications were philosophical as well as religious, since for most of that time, the distinction, if there was one, was incidental at best.

“The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” now on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, focuses on works dedicated to the notion of “memento mori.” It is an extraordinary exhibition in all aspects – the installation itself, the quality of the objects, the cutting-edge scholarship that underpins the show and the experience of viewers fortunate enough to visit.

The exhibition features 70 artworks, many of which have never before traveled to North America, and includes masterworks from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (and its Cloisters Museum) and San Marino’s Huntington Library. A peerless group of carved ivories, including beads and miniature sculptures newly attributed to the virtuoso carver Chicart Bailly (who was active in Paris from the 1490s into the 1530s), is the highlight and gives the show its name.

“Death and the Rich Man,” by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca.
1526, woodcut. Bequest of David P. Becker, Class of 1970.Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The exhibition ranges from exquisite jewelry to prints and paintings by some of Europe’s leading artists, such as the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger and the celebrated German printmaker Albrecht Dürer. As well, “Ivory Mirror” leans forward on Renaissance philosophy. It includes, for instance, a rare copy of Andreas Vesalius’s seminal 1543 anatomical publication, “On the Fabric of the Human Body,” which pictured human skeletons in poses that audiences of the day – educated in classical rhetoric – would have clearly read as humbled and devotional. But don’t be fooled by the classical legibility of the poses: The Vesalius was a radical work that crossed ecclesiastical red lines at a time when the Church maintained life-or-death power over scientific thinkers. (The Galileo Affair, for example, some 60 years later, didn’t work out so well for Galileo.)

If you approach the works in “Ivory Mirror” as historically distant anthropological objects, you are likely to miss the most elegant and moving aspect of the show: These are objects designed for the spiritual contemplation of mortality. Try to let the emotional and spiritual presence of the work lead you through the show – at least the first time you see it. Later, you can pull out the excellent catalog to parse the academic and historical intricacies.”

‘St. Jerome in his Study,” by Albrecht Dürer, 1514, engraving. Bequest of David P. Becker, Class of 1970. Bowdoin College
Museum of Art.

The objects displayed in the “Ivory Mirror” are powerful, poignant and beautifully displayed, particularly for anyone who is spiritually or religiously inclined. The soft-toned, serious display is hardly the stuff of analytical dissecting tables white-brightened by the scorching bulbs of science. Rather, we encounter practical devotional objects used again and again in the ritual of prayer. The “Chaplet,” for instance, a 13-bead strand of ivory carvings that greets museumgoers when they enter the exhibit, will stop most viewers in their tracks, as it did me. The ca. 1530 chaplet serves as an aide-memoire (memory aid – this memory theme is not by chance) for devotional prayers in which the user would ask for intercession on the part of a saint; typically, chaplets have about one-third as many beads as rosaries. This particular chaplet, from the Victoria and Albert Museum, was made near northern France. Like virtually all European ivory objects of this period, it was carved from elephant tusk. And since elephants were hardly common in France (sorry, Babar, or, maybe not), we get the point these were rarified (i.e., $$$) artisan objects.

“Chaplet,” ca. 1530, with mid-19th-century insertion, ca. 1850–1860, ivory, France or southern Netherlands. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I use the word “artisan” here for a reason: It’s the source of the word “art,” but it also conflates the notions of craftsmanship and art, which at the time weren’t as divided as we like to pretend they are now. With “Ivory Mirror,” our reverence for craftsmanship’s long lost virtuosity far outstrips our usual demands for contemporary artists. And this comes easy. We can feel the effort, the devotion, the faith, the impressive power.

Another Victoria and Albert Museum masterpiece is a gold ring with a revolving bezel (England, ca. 1600) that flips between a secretly symbolic form in gold and an enameled death’s head, a skull. It’s a tiny object, gorgeous and fascinating to the viewer and, undoubtedly, to the wearer.

“Ivory Mirror” runs so deep that any one of its 70 objects could be written about at length. The prints and illuminated manuscripts each warrant, and many have been the subjects of, dissertations and/or books. But the show does not demand scholarly expertise. Its true power lies in its proximity to the ordinary viewer. The beauty of the objects cuts to the personal experience. The devotional qualities of the objects will reach anyone who understands how faith drove behavior then – and now.

“Memento Mori” prayer bead, unknown artist, German/Netherlandish, ca. 17th century, ivory. Gift of Linda and David Roth in memory of David P. Becker. Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Photos courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Normally, I’d write admiringly about the pages of illuminated manuscripts on display, or the brilliantly detailed prints of Dürer and Holbein; those are my own predilections. But I found myself mysteriously drawn to a “memento mori” ivory bead donated to Bowdoin in 2011. It shows two faces of death: one fleshy and starting to rot, and the other with a skeletal smile and a snake winding through its empty left eye socket. The bead itself is a two-faced head, like the Roman god Janus, the lord of gates, transitions, decisions and crossroads, of endings and beginnings. We see this meme, or trope, over and over with memento mori-oriented chaplet beads. And while the Church may not have approved, the moral implications certainly would have resonated with classically trained Christians: crossroads, choices, conflict and transitions – in a nutshell, morals.

And that, after all was, was the spectre – the meme, the trope – of death to the wealthy Christian 500 years ago who could afford to invest in elephant ivory beads. Death was important, vast and beautiful. And it claimed them all.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]