Category Archives: vanitas

Memento Mori

While finishing up the book “Core Christianity: Finding Yourself in God’s Story” by Michael Horton, I came across the curious subject of still life paintings from the Dutch masters of the 16th and 17th centuries. Horton mentions that the typical paintings contained images of, and even the text of “memento mori”, in the art work. Horton was drawing a contrast between the remembrance death in the culture of those earlier centuries and today. We don’t like to think about the fact that one day we will die.

But isn’t death the ultimate accountability?

Vanitas is the name or genre given to these 16th and 17th century symbolic works of art. Vanitas comes from the Latin noun for emptiness. The symbolic reference in the paintings is to infer that, much like the author of Ecclesiastes in the biblical narrative, life is vain or meaningless. In these paintings you will often see a half-empty glass of wine, leftover scraps of food, flowers, and most times a skull ,which is a reminder of the certainty of death.

As a Christian, like everyone else, we have to face this reality of death. But, like Horton puts it, “Our people die well.” What he means is that “believers are able to meet tragedy and death not with a cheesy grin but with a wink,in the middle of pain, knowing that for them death has lost it’s sting.”

Memento mori is Latin for “Remember death.” The phrase is believed to originate from an ancient Roman tradition in which a servant would be tasked with standing behind a victorious general as he paraded though town. As the general basked in the glory of the cheering crowds, the servant would whisper in the general’s ear: “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!” = “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you will die!”

Memento mori. Remember that you will die. As a Christian I’d like to add:

per “O mors, ubi est victoria tua? ubi est mors stimulus tuus?

O death where is your victory? Where is your sting?

As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:57:

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria!!