BRUNSWICK, Maine — When we are healthy, when loved ones are well, why think of death? The Tibetan lama Chagdud Rinpoche put it this way: “When you have to go to the bathroom, it’s too late to build a latrine.”
“The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe” at Bowdoin College Museum of Art considers how wealthy, humanist Europeans contended with death in the 15th and 16th centuries. The show has the eerily quickening effect of a grade-A zombie movie mixed with thorough erudition’s ability to ground and edify.
Death confronts us with loss and ineluctable change and, more harrowing, our own end. Witnessing it, we may drop into an eddy where time stops and life feels precipitously more tender, more dear.
Memento mori is Latin for “remember death.” The carvings, prints, illuminated manuscripts, and more in this exhibition were intended to prompt reflections on death. Some do that with waspish moral rectitude. Others set teeth chattering.
In those days, people died at home, they fell victim to plagues and infections, they perished in childbirth, and they died young. In one heart-stopping print by Barthel Beham, “Dead Child With Four Skulls,” the body of a putti-like babe lies supine, exposed beside an empty hourglass. With his feet to us, he is expertly foreshortened, but essentially anonymous. The subject here is death itself — the skulls, rendered with ghoulish accuracy. Today, in America, death is easier to deny. In Renaissance Europe, people rejoiced that the Black Death had passed, but life’s fragility was still hard to ignore.
The Cemetery of the Innocents, in Paris, was overrun with corpses. Once a site for individual graves, the burial ground now opened enormous pits for mass graves. Skeletons were exhumed and the bones stored in surrounding charnel houses. In 1424 and 1425, a mural was painted in the cemetery’s arcade depicting a Danse macabre, or dance of death, an allegory in which people of all stations encounter the Grim Reaper. The lesson: You could be next.
The mural is long gone (the cemetery closed in the late 18th century, after about 2 million people had been buried there), but the iconography was common. Hans Holbein the Younger published his own version in woodcuts, with a wonderfully spry and wily skeleton.
Skeletons personified death — they still do — but the anatomical precision of their depiction during the Renaissance reveals a clinical approach to bones as subject matter and as material. Ivory was considered bone. Curator Stephen Perkinson, associate professor of art history at Bowdoin, centers the exhibition on intricately carved ivory beads made explicitly to remind us of how fleet our fleshly time may be.
A pendant to a rosary or chaplet has the delicately hewn face of a dead or dying man on one side — eyelids drooping, cheeks hollow, jaw slack — and a dreadful, gallingly explicit skull on the other with a salamander slithering through the jawbone and out the mouth. It’s ghastly but exquisite, so well carved it almost seems animated, freighted with horror and urgency. Consider toting this little item around in your pocket for contemplation.
Such pieces might have been used as prayer beads — the Catholic Church held sway and did not shy from its moral instruction. A pamphlet here on the art of dying cautions those on their deathbeds of the sins they should avoid as they expire. An “Office of the Dead” from a devotional Book of Hours depicts corpses holding a mirror up to a young man. Memento mori are a kind of mirror, as they present us with our inevitable future.
But several ivory beads here are not honeyed and worn by handling in the way of objects of devotion. One brilliant chaplet, the first piece on display, is a Danse macabre with large beads of men and women, paupers to princes, interspersed with skulls. This exquisite parade of terror has barely been touched. Unlike a rosary, it does not beg to be fondled.
Memento mori are badges of virtue, declarations of their owners’ piety and sobriety, even as their pricey materials and gorgeous handiwork boast of good taste and plump pocketbooks. One sly brooch tricked out with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls has a tiny skull and crossbones peeking from its very heart, as if vouchsafing the wearer’s good fortune or hedging accusations of vanity.
Many of these objects may have been kept in kunstkammers, personal collections of wondrous objects, the home museums of the wealthy. They sprang from humanism’s frank curiosity about human nature, and a pride in craftsmanship.
Perkinson and his colleague Katherine Baker are the first scholars to attribute one group of ivory carvings, including the two-faced pendant of the dying man, to Chicart Bailly’s Paris workshop. Bailly and his artisans incorporated acute anatomical detail, including pinprick holes in facial bones that echo cranial passageways for nerves. In the Renaissance, studying anatomy was a gateway to comprehending nature’s creation.
Andreas Vesalius examined bones at the Cemetery of the Innocents, and he revolutionized anatomical illustration, basing it for the first time on the study of human corpses. Yet even his exacting depictions here are memento mori. In one, the skeleton slouches over a grave marker, resting its bony hand on an overturned skull. A carving on the gravestone reads: “We live by the spirit, the rest belongs to death.”
The mixture of refinement and the macabre in “The Ivory Mirror” may seem strange, but it is no different today. We still approach death most readily through the arts, whether it’s “The Walking Dead” or “When Breath Becomes Air.” These, like memento mori, are avenues to get closer to death, to amplify the present, and apprehend how the end may feel.
We won’t know what that experience is until we get there, but good memento mori do more than prompt moral ledger-keeping and philosophical speculation. They speed the pulse, and like an alarm, remind us how little time we have.
THE IVORY MIRROR: THE ART OF MORTALITY IN RENAISSANCE EUROPE
At Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 245 Maine St., Brunswick, Maine, through Nov. 26. 207-725-3275, www.bowdoin.edu/art-museumCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.