Prince, Prelate or Pauper: Memento Mori

As we have noted many times before, the use of memento mori (reminders of mortality) have a long tradition in the Church. From vestments to funerary monuments, they have a long and venerable tradition in the life of the Church and served a very great purpose: they remind us that we will all, one day, meet our end and when we do, we will have to account for our lives. The lesson is essentially that of the Boy Scouts motto: "Be prepared." 

As part of this tradition, one of the ways memento mori were sometimes expressed were by showing skulls or skeletons either surrounded by symbols of states of life, or sometimes wearing them. One particular example can be seen here in this painted antependium which has its origins in Italy. There we see the common use of black with silver decoration. On the right side we see a skull with crossed bones wearing a crown with a sword and sceptre beneath. On the other we see a skull wearing a cardinals galero and beneath it a book -- possibly a bible, breviary or missal. The symbolism is both poignant: be you a Prince of the world or a prince of the Church, death and judgement will come to meet you; your station in life, no matter how haughty in this world will all be equalized at the time of death, and be you a prince, prelate or a pauper, you shall all face the same fate and just judge in the end. 

This symbolism is certainly powerful and it seems to me it is a symbolism which is quite poignant and relevant in the modern world. 

In the middle of the antependium we see a shovel and a pickaxe -- by which graves are dug. In the middle within a cartouche we see another memento mori, this time a skeleton in a boat with a fishing net cast into the waters -- the symbolism no doubt being that of death taking souls. 

This is not 'macabre' symbolism. These are theological symbols tied to the Catholic theology and teaching on the "four last things." 

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