BRUNSWICK, Maine — The first object visitors encounter in The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is a strand of prayer beads culminating with a three-faced carving. On one side is a man, on another a woman, and grinning sardonically between them is a skull.
“Instead of the expected face of a person, you get death,” explained curator Stephen Perkinson, associate professor of art history at Bowdoin College, on a recent visit to the exhibition. “Its message is ‘never forget you are mortal, remember that death in the end levels us all,’ and it’s doing that through the winking irony of a luxury good.”
Like all the approximately 70 objects in The Ivory Mirror, many on view for the first time in North America, the 1530 prayer beads are exquisitely crafted, down to the worms crawling through the skull’s bared teeth. The smaller beads have figures on either side representing classes from across society, from king to laborer, with a sudden corpse thrown into the mix. “These are objects meant to be seen in motion,” Perkinson said. Another ivory memento mori from 1520-30 has a whole narrative when turned: first there is a young man cradling a wine glass, next a skeleton in the same pose holding an hourglass, then a ghastly portrait of the youth on his deathbed, followed by gleeful demons with the inscription “follow me.”
Although memento mori objects like these peaked around 1500, they evolved from a tradition of the “dance of death.” One of the most famous depictions was the 1463 “Danse Macabre” frieze at St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck, Germany. Lost in a 1942 World War II bombing, it was a vivid mural of cadavers cavorting with people from every class, painted life-size so that viewers felt present in this chain of vitality and death. A prominent motif in the Renaissance was a youthful couple on one side of the ivory, and a skeleton on the reverse; an example in The Ivory Mirror is grotesquely detailed with snakes and lizards swarming out of the corpse’s mouth. The grisly vision is both the future of the happy couple, and a personification of death as the great leveler.
Mostly made between 1470 and 1530, the objects in The Ivory Mirror represent a darker side of art and belief than what’s usually associated with Renaissance Europe. For a long time, scholarship considered these memento moris as a morbid relic from the Middle Ages. “This was a period of prosperity and comfort,” Perkinson said of the Renaissance, noting that France in particular, where many of the ivory workers were located, was in an era of stability. “These objects are trying to speak to people enjoying that.”
And no matter a person’s status, lives could be short, with contagious disease or accidents taking down a person in their prime. Then their body was buried, or their bones stored as unnamed fragments in the charnel house. The emergence of humanism, which was concerned with texts from Greece and Rome and addressed the role of the divine, demanded that people use this inevitability to consider the purpose of their existence, and their spiritual afterlife. A 1520s boxwood piece has an incredible visual of death, with a cadaver’s skin flaking off, like a cocoon it is shedding. Contemporary viewers would have identified its pose as that of the biblical Adam in popular representations of the Genesis tale, thus reminding them of the need to repent and avoid damnation.
While sometimes designed as prayer beads, few of the ivory pieces have that amber patina of being handled. Their pristine state suggests they were part of kunstkammers, or home collections aimed at encyclopedic knowledge. These later became the basis of many museums. “Kunstkammers contained objects that allow you to understand the world,” Perkinson said, and “these memento mori objects became a way of deflecting criticism.” A wealthy person could have all manner of expensive oddity and treasure, but embedding these small acknowledgements of mortality communicated that they recognized their life’s brevity and the impermanence of its pleasures. “They allow the owners to almost have it both ways,” Perkinson added.
You might ask: why not just put a human skull in your kunstkammer for a more direct nod to death? The ivory carvings were about projecting the viewer onto their anonymous forms, and the artistic skill that went into them was part of their wonder. Artists were savvy about this market, making the memento mori sculptures not for commissions, but in anticipation of sales. And like the kunstkammer owners, they could show off a bit without critiques of egotism. The material they worked in was significant, as ivory had only recently begun arriving in Europe on reintroduced trade routes. As with now, its source from elephants added a further link with death. The buyers, “understood ivory as elephant bone,” Perkinson said. All of the objects on view in The Ivory Mirror have been carefully documented in their provenance.
Along with the sculptures, The Ivory Mirror includes paintings, engravings, boxwood sculptures, wood-cuts, illuminated manuscripts, and other works that support this moment of visual culture. The exhibition’s accompanying publication, its cover featuring a raised skull, further delves into this history, such as how the objects were designed to “reflect” back the universal human face. An especially glamorous golden brooch from 1575-1600 Germany is decorated with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls. Lean in close, and there’s a tiny skull lurking among the gems, a detail to ward off accusations of narcissism and coyly embrace fate.
“These objects are true mirrors,” Perkinson said. “You have mirrors of vanity, but these show the true self underneath.”
Most of the art in The Ivory Mirror is small enough to hold in your hand, with details meant to be meditated on. The accuracy of the skulls, including dots above and below the eyes for the nerves that enter through the bone, also reflects 16th-century anatomical knowledge. When ivory artists like Chicart Bailly, whose work was newly attributed by Perksinson with archival research by Katherine Baker for this exhibition, were in Paris, anatomist Andreas Vesalius was there, too, examining bones at the Cemetery of the Innocents. His influential 1543 publication De humani corporis fabrica even presented his radically accurate skeletons in memento mori poses. One contemplates a skull on a grave, resting its head on one bony hand. The detached skull is turned away from the viewer, revealing its underside. “In a period where people are really caught up in appearances, it’s stating: don’t get so attached to that,” Perkinson said. “And the underside is more mysterious. It is the utter obliteration of who you are.”
It’s interesting to view The Ivory Mirror in the context of the present, when many of its themes still resonate, as do its visceral depictions of our transient lives. The final work in the exhibition is from centuries after the other pieces: the 2015 “When H2 leave O” hologram by Folkert de Jong. Based on an MRI of the artist’s head, the glassy surface reveals his face dissolving to muscles and bone. While skulls remain in fashion, most of us are a long way from the personal connection with death in the Renaissance. In 1533, scholar Desiderius Erasmus remarked: “From our childhood what else do we hear but the groans of the dying? What else do we see but the dead being carried out for burial, the procession of mourners, and the monuments and epitaphs for the dead?”
The “good” death of the Renaissance was to die at home surrounded by friends, as illustrated in a 1466 moralist book where a man on his deathbed is being swayed from eleventh-hour avarice, his gathered companions oblivious to the tempting demons. This remains the way many of us want to go, but for decades in the United States, the slow fading away in a hospital bed has become the norm. However, with the rise of the death with dignity and hospice movements, it’s possible we are getting better at acknowledging the inescapable approach of mortality. The Ivory Mirror objects can be quite grim, with their snakes slithering through skeletal nostrils and lizards creeping on the bare crania. By startling the viewer, they ask us to seize this fleeting life. As a 1519 quote by Martin Luther affirms on one gallery wall: “We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move.”
The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe continues through November 26 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (9400 College Station, Brunswick, Maine).