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Willem Van Swanenburg, “Death and an Arrow About to Strike the Man Down,” plate 4 from ‘Allegory of the Misuse of Worldly Property, after Maarten van Heemskerk,’ (1609), engraving, Dr. and Mrs. E. William Ewers Gift for Fine Arts Fund and Vanderbilt Art Association, Acquisition Fund Purchase (all images courtesy Vanderbuilt Art Gallery)

The way most people in developed nations today experience the passing of loved ones contrasts sharply with the way humans have historically confronted death. Before the 20th century, illnesses were deadlier and lives were shorter; people typically died at home, and family members grieved publicly. Today, medical innovations have helped us live longer, in some cases extending life unnaturally. We die in hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities — often alone. And while people still wear black at funerals, we return to our usual wardrobe as soon as they’re over, unlike Mary Todd Lincoln, who expressed her bereavement after President Lincoln’s death by donning a widow’s garb until her own.

Memento Mori — Looking at Death in Art and Illustration at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery considers death’s role in society over the past 500 years. The oldest object in the exhibition is Vesalius’s anatomical treatise De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (1555), which shows — as co-curator Holly Tucker wrote in her book Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution — how “medical exploration took place most frequently in the domain of death.” Other pieces on display include a second-stage silk mourning dress from 1909, memorial jewelry woven from the hair of the dead, and a tombstone carved by sculptor William Edmondson. “Many of these traditions are no longer a part of Western culture,” Gallery Director Joseph S. Mella told Hyperallergic. He explained that these are set alongside the show’s contemporary works, like Enrique Chagoya’s 2003 lithograph “La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte,” which “deal more with the idea of death and issues of death in society rather than the death of individuals.”

“Plaster Death Mask of the Physiologist, Dr. Jan (Johann) Evangelista Purkinje” (1869), the Eskind Biomedical Library Special Collections

William Edmondson, “Williams Tombstone” (1931), limestone, Collection of the Tennessee State Museum

Maker unknown, “Mourning Brooch in Memory of Stephen Gore with a Lock of his Hair and the Inscription on the Verso, ‘Stephen Gore/Born/Apl 29th 1790/Obt/Sept 16 1845′” (c. 1845), gold, steel clasp, glass and hair, Collection of Janet Hasson

Maker unknown, “Mourning Bracelet” (c. 1850–80), braided hair with incised gold ornamentation and clasp, Collection of the Tennessee State Museum

Thomas Rowlandson and William Comb, “I have a secret art to cure/Each malady, which men endure” from ‘The Quack Doctor,’ found in ‘The English Dance of Death,’ from the designs of Thomas Rowlandson, accompanied with metrical illustrations by the author of ‘Doctor Syntax,’ Vol. I” (1814), hand-colored etching with aquatint, the Eskind Biomedical Library Special Collections

Andreas Vesalius, “De humani corporis (On the fabric of the human body),” second edition (1555), woodcut, the Eskind Biomedical Library Special Collections

Dutch Saunders, “What are you doing to end the White Plague” (c. 1912), offset lithograph, Peabody College Collection, Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery

William Hogarth, “A Harlot’s Progress, plate VI, fourth state: The Funeral, 1744” (reprint, after 1800), engraving, hand colored, Gift of Mrs. Mapheus Smith in memory of Mapheus Smith

Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives, “Death of Robert E. Lee” (1870), lithograph, Gift of Thomas B. Brumbaugh, Professor of Fine Arts, Emeritus

Käthe Kollwitz, “Tod packt eine Frau (Death Seizes a Woman)” (1934), lithograph, the Peabody College Collection, Vanderbilt University

Tsukoika Yoshitoshi, “The Hell Courtesan Jigukudayu sees herself as a Skeleton in the Mirror of Hell,” from the series ‘Yoshitoshi Ryakuga’ (Sketches by Yoshitoshi) (1882), woodblock print, the Herman D. Doochin Collection, Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery

Enrique Chagoya, “La Portentosa Vida de la Muerte” (The Prodigious Life of Death) (2003), lithograph, Dr. and Mrs. E. William Ewers Gift for Fine Arts Fund Purchase (courtesy the artist)

Memento Mori — Looking at Death in Art and Illustration continues at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery (Cohen Memorial Hall, 1220 21st Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee) through May 23.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...