Death, it has been remarked, is the one element of human existence that exceeds our empirical capacities, lying beyond our ability to achieve comprehension through personal experience. Our knowledge of death can only be derived indirectly—by observation of the deaths, real or imagined, of others. It seems safe to say that we prefer to engage in this observation from afar. Our culture abounds in representations of the deaths of others, from the cinematic demise of movie villains to the grainy footage of the victims of violence on the screens of our phones. Rarely are we asked to imagine that those deaths should be understood as suggestive of our own eventual fates. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the “slasher” film and its ilk may lie in the ways they allow us to survive death—to witness death’s baleful effects on others from a safe and comfortable distance.
It may seem surprising, then, that people in earlier centuries dedicated considerable energy to producing imagery that insistently confronted individual viewers with the fact of their own mortality. One spectacularly unsettling example of this is found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It is a pendant, created in northwestern Europe around the year 1500, and probably designed to hang from the end of a string of prayer beads. It is made of ivory, a precious and marvelous substance in the place and time of the object’s creation; its owner must have been wealthy.
The piece displays four figures joined in a story of folly and mortality. The tale begins with an elegantly-dressed young man carrying a wine glass. Rotating the piece reveals a second figure, this one a skeleton. In its hand it bears an hourglass, symbol of the inexorable passage of time, mirroring the pose of the young man as he holds his wine, token of one of life’s pleasures. As we rotate the ivory further, the skeleton reaches around to claw at the chest of a third figure. This man’s features reveal him to be on his deathbed: his eyes droop, his jaw gaps, and his cheeks collapse inward as he struggles to draw his last breath. As we turn to the object’s final side, a fourth figure, this one a shaggy demon with a monstrous second face on his belly, arrives to carry the man off to his final reward.
To be legible, this concise visual narrative relies on the viewer’s participation in recognizing patterns and their implications. That participation would have included reading. A scroll—signifier of speech in the art of this period—unfurls beneath the skeleton, emblazoned with two words: “ego sum” or “I am.” That short fragment of text would have summoned memories of a longer phrase found in countless texts and image of the period: “I am as you must become.” The skeleton then suggests the imminent fate of the well-dressed young man, but it also references the viewer’s own inevitable end. This linkage to the viewer’s identity is reinforced in the figure of the man on his deathbed. The brow of his nightcap is inscribed with what must be his last words: “vado mori” or “I go to die.” Written in the first person, they are “spoken” by the image of the dying man, but as the beholder reads them, the enunciation’s subject merges with the reader’s own identity. Here again the viewer would have easily intuited the implications that the person speaking these words was meant to be understood as him or herself: the refrain “vado mori” was repeatedly widely in moralizing poetry and sermons throughout Europe in the period.
What then should we make of this piece? How could such a grim subject have been considered appropriate for the decoration of a luxury good? Were individuals at that time simply far more comfortable with mortality than people in our own era are? Evidence from the period leads us to reject that possibility. The great essayist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) noted, for instance, that “many are tortured by the thought of death,” and that people are “terrified” and “shrink in fear” at the thought of it. This piece does not reveal a comfort with death, but rather an attempt to grapple bravely with the fact of mortality—to help the well-to-do citizens of an increasingly prosperous world avoid the temptation to forget their own mortality and instead immerse themselves in the increasingly abundant pleasures of life. Like so much literature of the period, the piece urged its viewers to recognize that the marvelous commodities available in the period were transitory things; real meaning, if it exists, must be found elsewhere. The fact that the object is itself a luxury good formed of material derived from long-distance (and increasingly exploitative) trade suggests that this critique was turned inward, towards the piece itself as well as its purchaser. In this way, it carried messages for pre-modern audiences that may still resonate with viewers today.