Memento mori is the depiction of death in its most literal for. Showing the desecration of the body and the symbolism that surrounds the judgement of life after death; it truly is a statement of the wearer. Its inception bought about a new way of philosophers and the affluent to show their status of recognising that they will die, which would lead one to live life to its fullest. From the 16th century, the meaning of memento mori took these values on, representing Renaissance philosophy and the values of the Reformation.
In the rise of the mourning industry, following the 1680s, appropriation of the memento mori symbols as being representative of death and mortality for a loved one became highly popular. There was no interpretation of the symbolism, other than the nature of death itself.
This predates the Neoclassical period, where the Enlightenment put the focus upon classical symbols representing the ‘self’. Much of these jewels had their inception post 1765, drawing to a close c.1820.
This ring dates from 1728; the absolute height of the memento mori style. It not only features the affectation of the ‘coffin’ shaped crystal, but it encapsulates the skeleton inlaid in black enamel around the band. Further to this, the element of the full skeleton inside the coffin crystal completes the sentiment. There is nowhere on the jewel that death is not represented. Its shovel and pick iconography below the skeleton’s feel around the band display a ring that was cleverly designed for its purpose.
The restoration of the monarchy began in 1658, following the death of Oliver Cromwell and the decline of the English Interregnum. In 1660, Charles II began many reforms (and revisions of history stating that he had succeeded his father from 1649). Most importantly to memorial jewellery and the culture of mourning was the Clarendon Code, which in a series of Acts (Corporation, Uniformity, Conventicle and Five Mile), effectively re-establishing the Church of England.
His successor; James II, King of England Ireland / James VII, King of Scotland did not promote a period of stability that would equate to a change in the style of mourning jewels, rather, the opposite effect of increasing the importance of the memento mori symbolism became more pronounced.
Jacobite (Latin: Jacobus/James) rebellions continued between 1688 and 1746 were instigated to restore Stuart kings to the thrones of Scotland and England. James II and VII was deposed in the Glorious Revolution in 1688. James was considered to be pro-French and Catholic, leading to William III of Orange to invade from the Netherlands. James was succeeded by William III & II and Mary II, who were married – Mary being joint sovereign of England, Scotland and Ireland. Mary II passed on in 1694, William became the singular ruler. Throughout the shared reign, the Jacobite resistance promoting the divine right of kings challenged the rule, stating that the throne is a rule of God and not dictated by Parliament. Over 400 clergy and many bishops of the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church refused to take an oath of allegiance to William. Parliament majority of the Whigs supported William, with fluctuating support by the Tories. Wars against the Louis XIV of France kept William away from England, during the time when Mary was alive, letting her govern, wasn’t resolved until the Treaty of Rijswijk ended the Nine Years’ War in September 1697. This statement of authority in William from Louis as monarch pacified the Jacobites to some degree.
By 1708, the French backing of the Jacobites and the War of Spanish Succession led James Stuart to renew succession to the crown. He sailed six thousand French troops towards the Firth of Forth, but was intercepted by the Royal Navy. The French admiral turned and was pursued around the north of Scotland to Dunkirk.
George I was coronated in October 1714 as the King of Great Britain and Ireland. He was born in Hanover and ascended the throne after the death of Queen Anne, establishing the House of Hanover (lasting until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901). His rule was ushered in via the Act of Settlement in 1701, which prohibited Catholics from taking the throne.
Following this, the Rising of 1715 and 1719 were Jacobite plans to forge alliances (in 1719, with Spain’s Minister to the King) and land in Scotland were both overcome by Royal forces.
Once more in 1744, the 1743 War of Austrian Succession led the Jacobites to request armed assistance, with growing hostilities between the Britain and France. Charles Edward Stuart (The Young Pretender / ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) was rushed to France from exile in Rome to join a surprise attack in February 1744 by the French in southern England, where they would meet the Tories and march on London. A storm eventually led to the failure of the invasion and Charles was informed of this on the 28th of February.
The final major push of the Jacobites led by Charles was the Rising of 1745. Led by the belief that the Scottish Highland clan chieftains would join him if he bought an army of three thousand French troops, Charles set about funding Nantes privateers and sailed to Scotland, where he began growing clan following for his cause. Following resistance, Charles requested a French invasion force and later heard of one assembling at Dunkirk. Charles achieved a distance of two hundred kilometres from London amidst much misinformation, until the army retreated. Charles fled to France and the decline of the Jacobite movement had begun. The movement was not the force it had once been.
Developments in the cultural context of this ring show just how valuable the sentiments of mortality were. Not only were these in relation to the immediate family, but these identifiers of death remind people who see it that there is a natural outcome to dissent.
Symbols are important for holding a primary value in a culture. Without symbolism, everything can change. One common representation of death becomes a language that is understood between people. The symbol of the skeleton is so prominent in this jewel that there’s no variation for its meaning. It wants to tell you that you will die and you will decay.
Love and sentiment is important through every value of a mourning jewel. From a perspective of industry, intelligent business owners/jewellers could capitalise on these symbols which were at their height through political instability. High mortality rates and uncertainty in life choices made showing a ring with a skeleton inside and around it something which could be highly valuable and requested by the public. Mourning rings, written into wills, were swiftly becoming a popular method of donating a token of remembrance after death.
Mourning bequeathments had been in popular thought since the late 16th century, but became indoctrinated through the 17th century. Most famously, William Shakespeare in 1616 declared that in his will that his daughter and wife should have rings stating “Love My Memory”. Samuel Pepys bequeathed 123 rings upon his death in 1703. These rings were graded into three classes and given out according to proximity of friendship and social status. So typical as a token of giving at a funeral, Pepys wrote in his diary:
“This day my Lady Batten and my wife were at the burial of a daughter of Sir John Cawson’s and had rings for themselves and their husbands.” – July 3, 1661
The period of the second half of the 17th century was the time of the Restoration of the British Crown and a time when industries were growing to accommodate a growing middle class through technological advancements. Through this, the custom of highly produced rings led to cheaper cost. Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford, died in 1700 and bequeathed 72 rings at £1 each to friends and family, based on the same principles as Pepys.
Memento Mori Evolves
Memento mori, meaning ‘’remember death’ and remember you must die’ is a sign of mortality and final judgement. The concept of death being a factor that can happen at any moment is a message to the wearer or viewer of the symbol that life must be savoured to the moment and that final judgement awaits all. It is part an ecclesiastical statement as well as one of the intellectual and aristocratic, who could afford to adorn themselves with the memento moro symbolism. It is a statement that is ancient, with Roman depictions of memento moro joined with statements such as ‘Eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we die.’
Catholic domination during the middle ages utilised the memento mori symbolism greatly, instilling the values of being judged for the life you lead. Sentiments such as ‘Dye to Live’ inscribed within a memento mori ring adds to that statement, for the afterlife is the true essence of being.
Following the Restoration, Great Britain had suffered a shock to its primary values of religion and politics. In the space of three generations, the Catholic Church and the Crown had been destabilised, with the Restoration of the Crown building around a new society with new values of the ‘self’. This didn’t take away religion, but questioned the purpose of living, bringing back many of the life statements surrounding memento mori. Intellectuals and the aristocracy could wear jewellery with the memento mori symbolism and show their pursuit of a better physical existence.
With this affectation, the symbols also continued their meaning of mortality and their use in mourning jewels grew as the mourning industry grew. In the piece from c.1600, there is an early representation of the skull in an Elizabethan design. This is the nexus between the change of the symbols being decidedly mourning and previously for the statement of living.
It was the popularisation of crystal, commonly known as the ‘Stuart Crystal’ c.1603-1714 in England, during the 1680s, which popularised the look of memento mori symbolism. Seen most commonly in rings and ribbon slides (worn at the neck or cuff), oval shaped bezels with faceted crystals reflected the light in the same way as a faceted diamond would. Underneath, gold wire cypher initials being flanked by memento mori symbolism and placed on top of hair, material or vellum was a way to display identity and relationship status through a jewel on the self.
Baroque influences upon these jewels began to enter through the 1680s, but became more common at the turn of the 18th century. Shapes became more rectangular in brooches, slides and bezels, with sharper facets between c.1700-1720. Memento mori symbolism was adapting to the new styles and were the main designs for mourning representation. Objects of the body or the afterlife to denote mortality were flanked with Baroque design elements through floral motifs, such as the acanthus entwining flowers. Much of this is a reaction to the dominant architectural styles seen in other physical designs, which leads the jewels to adapt to fashion.
Romantic influence in contemporary sentimental jewels led for the heart motif to become popular and influence the worn statement of love for a jewel. Most popular being the ‘Georgian Heart’ motif, which can be seen below:
Following this, the Rococo period used the existing memento mori/Baroque styles and morphed them into a much more elegant and organic design. Bands became highly decorated and twisted into ribbon/scroll motifs, the infusion of greater floral elements was an adaptation of the dominating Baroque style and the bezels on mourning rings became smaller. It wasn’t until c.1765 and the introduction of the Neoclassical period that the greatest challenge to the memento mori style would essentially relegate it to become an anachronism.
Wearing a jewel to show that you will be judged and to live life for all its benefits is quite a grand statement during times with high mortality rates and a more feudal-based system of government, but during the 1670s-80s, there’s a strong shift to higher industry, specialised work and education. Politically, England was recovering from a civil war and the reinstatement of the kingship in Charles II in 1660, the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666. There was a high mortality rate and Charles II was only beginning the process of the Restoration. Hence, pieces like this could allow themselves to become more commonplace, the symbols of death could be appropriated for an industry that was reacting to the execution of a king and a subsequent civil war, it could pick up on the nuanced tokens of affection that became popular from this and it could produce a product that was relatively easier to produce and almost the same to sell.
Several events during the reign of Charles II led to the jewels of mourning and affection that dominated through to the 19th century. These being a combination of the Great Plague of London in 1665, with a mortality rate of an estimated 100,000 people, causing the king to flee London to Salisbury in July 1665. The Great Fire of London in September 2nd, 1666 was another such occurrence that, while not causing the high mortality rate of the plague, decimated London (13,200 houses, 87 churches) and left a lasting impression on a culture that had been challenged through political and religious thought.
Combine with this a period of cold, during the “Little Ice Age”, where the River Thames frosted over. One such notable event was the Great Frost of 1683-84, with a two month frost that led to 11 inches of ice depth in London.
Connection between communities was advanced through the use of written language, particularly that within chapbooks. Chapbooks, pamphlets containing popular literature, were a popular source for many of the sentiments written in jewels, particularly inside posie rings. These cheap pamphlets grew in popularity, as they were sold cheaply (commonly a penny or halfpenny) and contained many popular ballads from the time. This pre-dates mass produced media of the early 19th century, when steam presses led to the rise of cheap newspapers. From the mid 16th century, these cheap and crudely produced booklets contained relevant popular content that varied from entertainment to political and religious content.
Society was at a point where events had overtaken the immediacy of global rule and communications that didn’t end at the limit of a village. Now, the world had opened up in ways which forced society to accept the relationships developed on a personal nature to be the truth, beyond religious or crown judgement.
In 1686, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes led to Huguenot goldsmiths and jewellers emigrating to Great Britain. This was when the previous allowance by Henry IV of France provided Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) significant rights. With this retraction, the Huguenots bought with them skills which enabled the London trade to compete with Paris. This led to greater patronage with the influx of greater designs and new elements of fashion appearing as popular in jewels. By the mid 18th century, much of the values that were carried to Britain were instilled within the new industry and led to such elements as the Rococo designs in jewellery from its continental influence.
As the Protestant Reformation was such a reaction to the Catholic Church, the Baroque style was encouraged from the early 17th century as an emotive way of influencing and dominating art with religion. It is an imposing style, particularly in architecture, with an opulence and power that seems all pervasive, particularly when used in context of religious places of worship.
Between the mid 16th and 17th century, this ring shows the influences of different socio-political influences that have led to its dominant memento mori motifs. from the Restoration and the reign of Charles II, there was no period of absolute peace, but this did begin a period of challenge to traditional thought and the rising of new industries. These industries could capitalise on new technologies and learnings of introduced talent into Britain and exploit this for financial gain. Death and taxes being two of life’s absolutes lead to a good profit being made from the act of grief and the requirement of presenting oneself in public with the trappings of grief when a loved one has died.
Combine the mortality rate in the mid 17th century to be around 40, with even childhood being difficult to survive and the message of this ring shares its honesty. Life was difficult and there were many opportunities to fight for a political ideal and get monetary rewards, which allowed for sentimental jewels to flourish. Capitalisation on these causes, as well as the various disasters, be they natural or otherwise, only played to the heart of love itself. As a population, we require the company and love of others, as well as their support. Without giving thanks to this concept in a ring or jewel, then the connectivity between societies and cultures does not lend itself to memory and learning through what has come before. If not for the generation that enabled the Protestant movement, then all that had been in the latter 17th century would not exist.
Resonating mortality for its time, this skeletal ring was at the height of its fashion and its sentiment. Surrounded by turmoil, yet reflected in love, the ring reflects several skeleton motifs and the desecration of the body. Why this was such a popular motif was the immediacy of death to the wearer and the viewer of the ring. At no stage is there any consideration for a beautiful life after death, or that the mourning is a sad occasion for opulent decoration – memento mori presents death in its basic fundamental. Remember you will die, this ring tells us.
Even from the perspective of design, the skeletal motif is not welcoming or pleasant in its demeanour, its visage is grim and it wards the wearer to uphold the ideals of life as it exists and live life to its fullest.