This exhibition represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the rich visual culture of mortality in Renaissance Europe. The appeal of the “memento mori,” featuring macabre imagery urging us to “remember death,” reached the apex of its popularity around 1500, when artists treated the theme in innovative and compelling ways. The centrality of the macabre was an essential facet of late medieval and early modern culture.
Exquisite artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry—evoke life’s preciousness and the tension between pleasure and responsibility, then and now.
The exhibition will focus in particular on a group of carved ivories, but will also display related works in other media to demonstrate the widespread interest in human mortality.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.
Whether you go or not, the exhibition catalog, The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe considers nearly 200 illustrated artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry to exquisitely carved small sculptures—to present us with an aspect of this era that is at once darker and more familiar than we might have expected. Macabre images proliferated in the period: unsettling depictions of Death personified, of decaying bodies, of young lovers struck down in their prime. These morbid themes run riot in the remarkable array of artworks featured in this bookr. Focused on the challenge of making choices in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, Renaissance artists turned to poignant, often macabre imagery to address the critical human concern of acknowledging death, while striving to create a personal legacy that might outlast it. The essays gathered here discuss the development and significance of this transformative art of the past, while exploring themes that are still relevant today: how does one navigate the implicit tension between mortality and morality and seek to balance individual pleasure with the pursuit of a greater good?
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