Memento Mori – The Congregation of Good Death of Barcelona

“A priest forever… yet mortal” thus reads the motto carried with a biretted skull, a warning to be heed by all priests that behold it. This memento mori is part of the insignia and improperia that were solemnly carried through the streets of Barcelona on Ash Wednesday during the procession of the congregation of Good Death.

It is likely that the war and plague outbreaks that desolated Barcelona at the end of the 17th century prompted the resurgence of late medieval memento mori. Several villages recovered (and preserve to this day) the dance macabre as part of public performances during Lent and Holy Week. On the other hand in Barcelona, a learned city, this resurgence took the shape of the Congregatio Bonae Mortis, which was founded in the city’s ancient convent of St Augustine in the year 1700, though in later years it moved to the Oratory of St Phillip and ultimately to the church of St Anne.

The goal of the congregants was to prepare themselves for a Good Death, meditating on the brevity of life and the importance of being in a state of Grace. The Congregation celebrated weekly spiritual exercises to this end, the practice of Spiritual and Physical works of mercy, mainly Masses for the Souls in purgatory and visiting the sick, as well as private and public mortification.

Emblem of the Congregation from its 1710 constitutions

The main public manifestation of the congregation was the procession on Ash Wednesday. On the occasion, they chose to remind the entire city of the brevity of life and the importance of a Good Death, displaying for all to see symbols of mortality, these memento mori.

The procession was opened by the andador (a verger), marking the pace of the committee, closely followed by the Congregation’s guión, a black banner embroidered with the skeletal figure of death and the words “memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris”.The initial section of the procession bore somewhat abstract insignia: the scythe, hourglass, crucifix giving way to increasingly morbid symbols. In later years, each insignia was carried its own corresponding improperium, or motto.

The second section reminded the people that death does not make distinction of age and so displayed caskets, both adult and child sized, and a shroud preceded full skeletons of both ages. The last section of insignia underlined the equality of all stations of life in death, 8 sculls, each bearing crowns, birettas, miter and lastly the tiara. The ashes and the image of Christ on the Cross, carried in turns by several penitents, closed the procession.

The congregants wore penitential habits with trains, sewn from waxed black cotton. The characteristic stiff hood or capirote was likely incorporated in the nineteenth century, while the train was eliminated by the beginning of the twentieth century. A musical ensemble accompanied the retinue singing appropriately penitential pieces. The Congregation and its procession disappeared during the latter part of the twentieth century. Thankfully, a group of parishioners of the church of St Anne recently revived it, but to date the procession only includes the image of Christ on the Cross and not the memento mori. Hopefully these will also be recovered in time.

This late nineteenth century paper cut-out print shows the procession in great detail, including the improperia, translated below.

Mounted City Guard    Verger    Banner    Emblem of the Congregation    Scythe: No one is spared    Hourglass: Your last hour approaches

Crucifix and Skull: Idea of death    Crucifix: Agony    Casket: This is your abode    Child's Casket: From the cradle to the grave.

Shroud: This is our livery.     Skeleton: What you are, I was; what I am, you will be.  Child's Skeleton: Do not presume a long life.    Flower diadem: I died but did not wither

Laurel diadem: This is the crown of triumph.    Biretta: A priest forever, yet mortal.    Doctoral biretta: There is no reasoning with death.    Musicians.    King's crown: None reign over the grave.

Imperial crown: I too was humiliated by death.    Jumbled bones: Bare bones will some day be revived.    Mitre: Dignity does not exempt me from dying.    Tiara: Death did not spare me.     Priests...

...of the Congregation.    Ashes: Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.     Crucifix bearers.

Christ on the Cross.    Congregants.     Council.

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