Open Review
Death, the Common Unsharable: Has the Meaning of Memento Mori Imagery Changed?

Pendant paintings are companion paintings that should hang on a wall together. Two of my favorite are of a married couple by Frans Halls, whose separate treatments might seem sexist at first sight [Fig. 1-2].

She is demure, highly finished, hemmed in by a fashionable ruff and bonnet, perhaps on the point of speaking but not. He is raffish, tousled, impatiently breaking away from his pose, and painted with far greater virtuosity, freedom and bravura. But the situation changes when we discover that she was still alive. She was commissioning this portrait of her late husband as she wished to remember him – as a memory.

I believe it is possible to have pendant dreams. I define a pendant dream as one that goes with or complements another dream one might have had years ago. Together they constitute companion pieces that hang in one’s memory like paintings in tandem. One’s dreams are notoriously more interesting to oneself than to others but at the risk of self-indulgence, I shall relate a couple of dreams about my parents. One is minimal, the other maximal, both about remembering their futures; the first an individuated future of my father, the second a collective future about my mother. I use them to pose a question that others are better qualified to answer than myself: do dreams about death change over the centuries or are there constancies?

Frans Hals, Nicolaes Pieterszn Hasselaer, c 1633-35
Fig 1:  Frans Hals, "Nicolaes Pieterszn Hasselaer," c 1633-35
Frans Hals, Sarah Wolphaerts Van Diemen, c 1633-35
Fig. 2: Frans Hals, "Sarah Wolphaerts Van Diemen," c 1633-35

What these dreams of mine have in common is that they both fill a nano-second of dream-time with enormous import, or as Freud said in his dream book, they are enormously condensed. But there is also a very striking and curious opposition of themes.

The first dream was decades ago. It was simply the disembodied sound of my father's door key entering the latch of our front door as heard from my bedroom, which was located at the greatest possible distance away on the upper story where I would typically be doing homework or convalescing from flu or whatever damned thing I was doing when he got home. For some reason I could always tell when it was Dad's key rather than anyone else's going into the lock, well before the door opened. This dream was absolutely nothing more than my attention to that sound alone before the door grated open; sometimes a key is just a key. Yet it conveyed the whole potentiality of who he was and everything in mood, preoccupation and memory he was about to bring with him into the house.... Mysteriously, it summed him up as a future rather than a past.

The pendant dream arrived a couple of months before my mother died in 2009 at the grand old age of 96. It must have been about her but was much less individuated, if just as instantaneously portentous. It was like a brief clip from a movie, not a still because there was a certain upward drift and zooming-in of the dream lens. It was simply the view of an ancient, weathered, huge, pyramidal, thin, tall, dark, wet, free-standing bell-tower about to ring, silhouetted against a dank, lush, trickling Welsh landscape and lowering, brooding, drizzling, grey, clouded, sky. The dark background to the still darker silhouette of the monument itself. It obviously signified death, but death in its collective, ago-old, deindividuated aspect with a Gothic chill of realization, except that it also applied to every other age. It was not a premonition of mourning for a particular person but rather about my poor mum joining that numberless throng of the deindividuated. The 'curious opposition of theme' from the other dream was that, unlike the sound of my father's key, her personal identity was projected backwards in time against the blankness of the future of that 'land from which no traveler returns' and of those great communal structures for acknowledging death that seem to have lost their hold on our collective imagination except where the dubious nation-building exercise of war commemoration is concerned, in which ‘war is grief for many individuals but survival truth for the body-politic.’[1] 

For that reason my dream brings with itbut only as a train of associations in its wake rather than as an organic part of the dreamgreat architectural and literary reminders. Such illusions include Hamlet's soliloquy but also ‘The Dead’, the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). There, Gabriel falls asleep with his mind crossing the churchyard where Michael lay buried and ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead’, and something too of Ruskin’s eye mounting the façade of the English Gothic cathedral in Stones of Venice II

and so, higher still, to the bleak towers, so far above that the eye loses itself among the bosses of their traceries, …, and only sees like a drift of eddying black points, …, the crowd of restless birds … so harsh and yet so soothing, like the cries of birds on a solitary coast between the cliffs and sea.’ … [2]

Only the bell tower in my dream was far more dense, rugged, simple and undecorated in construction, a unitary statement, its overbearing scale due rather to the proximity of the viewer than to actual height, its location deeply rural, in fact dourly Welsh, where such things are still felt, or one imagines they are, and of course where Mother lived at that time. I should add that the effect of the dream was less one of horror than of an exact fit with a general condition of depressing truth. Perhaps 'exact fit' is the link with the other dream (for sometimes a key is not just a key)! By investing the dream with thought relations it probably never had, I would be surprised if the terms in which I tell the dream were not couched in the cultural terms of my educational, social and national background, which, to the extent that I do not cross the boundary into the imagination of another world, I suspect are Protestant for I was brought up in the wishy-washy Church of England. However universal the depersonalized and deathly content of the dream, there is nothing of Dante’s vivid picturing of individuals after death on his visionary, posthumous journey of spiritual education through purgatory and hell.

Take Bernini’s head of the Damned Man (1619), for example, a work that makes its impact as a likely portrait of a Protestant (though, incongruously for a Catholic artist, it’s also supposed to be a self portrait), not by picturing the flames of hell, but by getting us to imagine what he sees in reacting to it with such terror. We imagine what he sees [Fig. 3].

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, "Damned Man" (1619)
Fig. 3: Gian Lorenzo Bernini, "Damned Man" (1619)

Norman Bryson has reinforced the rift between Protestant and Catholic access to the other world:

For Calvin, visualization is the mark of a failed reading of the text: those who take literally the words ‘Depart from me … into everlasting fire’, and proceed to visualize the fires of Hell, are missing the inner meaning of the text: that the punishments of Hell are terrible beyond sensual comprehension’.[3]

‘Effacing itself as writing’, by contrast, the text of St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises

exists only to dissolve into radiant eidetic space… With the vanitas, as with Calvin, however, the exact reverse is true: signified (judgment, Resurrection, the Last Things) and signifier (image) can never merge … this is because the Last Things are beyond human comprehension … all we know is this world and the things of this world. We are condemned by the Fall and our depravity to inhabit a material world that can never be transcended; and images will not help us to escape this fate.[4]

There is another crucial sense in which I think my dream is modern in its horror at the chill of death. Of course there have always been visions of the Triumph of Death as an impartially horrific catastrophe for all, but also brought consolations that may be surprisingly unfamiliar to many of us [Fig. 4 and 5].

Anon., Triumph of Death, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abaletto, Palermo, c. 1446
Fig. 4:  Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562
Anon., Triumph of Death, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abaletto, Palermo, c. 1446
Fig. 5: Anon., Triumph of Death, Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abaletto, Palermo, c. 1446

Some years ago, I visited the ossuary in the Capuchin Crypt beneath Santa Maria della Consolazione in Rome where four thousand skeletons were brought down from from the Quirinal in three hundred carriage loads between 1628 and 1631. Additions were made from bodies of the brethren until as late as 1870. There are many ossuaries of this kind around the world, most particularly at Paris, emulating the Roman one, a big one at Sedlec, Czechoslovakia, and spectacular one at Palermo of which Peter Robb has written thus:

Earthly power, sex, religion and professional status were even more rigidly distinguished than in the world of the living. ... The entire casts of Tolstoy's Balzac's and Dickens's novels seemed to have been dried out and stacked away vertically in their disintegrating dress uniforms, their rotting ball gowns, their dusty frock coats, rows and rows of the upper strata of nineteenth century society, rigorously grouped in their Darwinian or Marxist categories.[5]

The Roman ossuary couldn't be more different from this worldly microcosm of society, for the disarticulation of individual skeletons into promiscuously batched types of bone ensured an effect of almost total impersonality [Fig. 6]. Hundreds of skulls are piled up together and pinned back by wire netting into an architecture of alcoves in which only the occasional grinner beneath a cowl and with a scythe in its hands remains intact to personify the abstract figure of Death. A clock made of real arm and finger-bones signifies the inexorable passage of time while everything else answers to the uniform memento mori motto: Where you are now so once were we; where we are now you soon shall be.

Perhaps this spectacle of so many human remains seems unbearably macabre, causing the splitting headache that my foolish visit to the piled glasses and suitcases of Auschwitz victims once gave me as the enormity of what I saw began to sink in, but it didn't come across like that at all. What most struck me was the disposition of the most curvilinear bonesribs and radiae and ulnaeinto patterns that swerved around the formal borders of the walls in a manner that seemed to emulate the most frivolous Roccoco drawing rooms of Rome [Fig 7]. Why should the builders of a mass grave have aspired to an elegantly whimsical effect?

Capuchin Crypt, Santa Maria della Consolazione, Rome
Fig. 6: Capuchin Crypt, Santa Maria della Consolazione, Rome
Roccoco Ceiling, Capuchin Crypt, Santa Maria della Consolazione, Rome
Fig. 7: Roccoco Ceiling, Capuchin Crypt, Santa Maria della Consolazione, Rome

I am so Godless that it took a good while for the penny to drop that, for an ardently Christian community, the prospect of the life-everlasting is so real that death is naught but a joke, a mild velleity, polite enough for everyone to share.[6] Rather than being gruesome or horrific, the reminder is gentle and positive, reminding us to get on briskly with our daily affairs and be right with the higher power at all times. As Christ’s light pours through the window to inspire him, Durer’s St Jerome (1514) busies himself in his study, hastened on by a skull kept firmly in view on the windowsill.

In what remains of this writing, I wish to make a stark departure from the past in contemplating a contemporary memento mori video work that employs the fluidly interactive identifications of digital imagery to advance a thesis concerning death that shuns nostalgia in favour of anger, revenge and natural justice played out across the divides between nature and culture, reciprocity and rapacity. As Britain’s entry in the 2013 Venice Biennale, the blurb for English Magic states that Jeremy Deller’s work focuses "on British societyits people, icons, myths, folklore and its cultural and political history … events from the past present and imagined future, woven together in a narrative that is almost psychedelic; hovering delicately between fact and fiction real and imagined." Music by the Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London oscillates between Vaughan Williams and David Bowie.[7] In a film excerpt, we see beautiful raptors landing and taking off before we cut to the fate of defunct Range Rover SUVs in a scrapyard. Much of the aesthetic force of the film is carried by the magnificent slow motion, close-up footage of raptors’ rippling feathers, powerful musculature and lethal claws  in the countryside, juxtaposed with the claws of crane jibs pouncing on Range Rovers and dropping them into crushing machines in wrecker’s yards. Perhaps there is something accidentally ancient about a hypnotized viewer/auditor moving between levels of waking reality, complex symbolism and a moralizing implication, but I shall argue that the segment brokers knowledge of a topical new element of meaning too.

Since there is a much wider resonance of meaning to the film, maybe we don’t even need to know the specific event that is likely to have prompted it. But then again, perhaps we do. In October 2007 Prince Harry of the British Royal Family and a close friend were interviewed by police about two hen harriers shot when they were the only people known to be out shooting on the Sandringham family estate in Norfolk. A spokesman for Clarence House reported: "Unfortunately, they’ve no knowledge of the alleged incident’ witnessed by a staff member of Natural England, the government’s conservation agency, and two members of the public."[8] On the protection list, there are only twenty pairs of hen harriers in England, and the usual penalty for shooting them is a prison sentence and a 5,000 pound fine. In view of the analogy between the claws of the raptors and the crane, together with the fact that only Range Roversthe rural aristocrats’ vehicle of choiceare crushed in these ‘bird’s eye views’, English Magic appears oneirically to re-enact the raptors’ revenge on human predators. At a later stage, the crane seems to gleefully play with its food before exterminating it. The emotional response it elicits from us is not exactly moral, but rather schadenfreude, literally ‘harm-joy’, the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. At the very least, justice is mixed with atavistic revenge and a curiously posthuman ethic supervenes in which admiration of natural killers is combined with sadistic satisfaction in destroying the status symbols of an oppressive class. Of course, the surreal transfer across ontologies is funny, so makes us awkwardly conscious of our double standards. It incites us to no specific political action, but sticks in our gorges with a shock of self-recognition.

You might say, as Andrew Beresford says of Medieval Castilian dream poems, that here ‘In fully developed dream visions the rule of construction depart from those of normative realty: objects speak: abstractions are given life; the logic of the physical universe becomes subservient to the demands of allegory.’[9] I don’t know what transcendental level of the allegory is activated here, unless it be contemporary communication platforms, for after their primary display at festivals, films like this are consumed on the internet. It seems to me that the internet is bringing in new memento mori imagery with strong social import. In the age of surveillance and massive ephemeral networked communities, the imagery of death is becoming more dynamic. On the one hand, the wolfishness of the human in a state of nature has begun to invade community awareness with a no longer latent blood lust (vide the Ukraine-Russia war porn daily played out on Tik Tok), but at the same time there may be new ways of intervening due to universal surveillance that might preserve what is distinctive and useful in the common unsharable of which death is still the most potent symbol as something we all confront, but confront privately. There may have arisen a tenuous solidarity in new imaginary commitments to the one in the many: joint responsibility for the numberless individual deaths predicated on the Anthropocene.

Or perhaps it was ever thus, the trunkless legs of the statue of the forgotten tyrant stand in Shelley’s Ozymandias (1818), the recollection of Homo Bulla (the child blowing bubbles as ephemeral as life itself) in  the snow domefond childhood relicrolling out of the hand of the dying plutocrat and smashing on the floor in Citizen Kane (1941), or the figure of Death indifferently calling on kings, abbots, judges, merchants and the the poor alike in Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death series of engravings (1523-25).[10] These are less religious consolations than the the vengeful satisfactions or self-corrective reminders that the unjustly advantaged and cruelly powerful will also die. Who would have known there were so many?

[1] See Richard A. Koenigsberg, ‘Fantasy of Culture,’ Foucault-L (2004),

[1] See Richard A. Koenigsberg, ‘Fantasy of Culture,’ Foucault-L (2004): ‘Daniel Teodoru writes insightfully that “war is grief for many individuals but survival truth for the body-body politic, that is.” He observes that it is the “same with culture.” Culture represents an imposition of “positive burdens and negative proscriptions on the individual that sacrifice ‘me’ for ‘it’ - the social entity to which I belong.”’ Teodoru concludes with the paradox that ‘in order to feel safe by being a member of that social entity, I sacrifice even myself to protect it.’

[2] John Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1903-12), vol. 10, p. 79. The editors, Works, vol. 10, p. 78 n., tentatively identify the building as a generic compound of Salisbury and Canterbury cathedrals.

[3] Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, Four Essays on Still Life Painting (London: Reaktion Books: 1990 (2000), p. 117.

[4] Ibid., pp 117-118.

[5] Peter Robb, Midnight in Sicily: On Art, Food, History, Travel and  Cosa Nostra (London: Harvill Press, 1996), p. 88.

[6] As was inscribed in the Parisian catacombs: 'we are born to die and we die to be reborn to eternal life.' See Richard A. Etlin, The Architecture of Death: The Tranformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century  Paris (Cambridge: MIT, 1987), p. 90.

[7] Jeremy Deller, English Magic, 2013,

[8] Severin Carroll, ‘Prince Harry quizzed by police about shooting of rare birds,’ Guardian, October 31, 2007,

[9] Andrew M. Beresford, ‘Dreams of Death in Medieval Castlian Hagiography: Martydrom and Ideology in the Gran Flos Sanctorum, La corónica: A Journal of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures, and Cultures 42, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 160.

[10] See Hans Holbein, The Dance of Death, introd. Austin Dobson (London: George Bell & Sons, 1892). Les Simulachres & Historiees Faces de la Mot, autant elemegammet pourtraictes, que artificiellement imagines. (A Lyon: soubs l’escu de Coloigne, 1538).

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