Growing up around the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where his father worked, art historian Stephen Perkinson always knew to check what was installed near the water fountain. While curators felt the need to show the museum’s most famous works in the main galleries, side galleries like that one, they told him, were where they got to play.
In graduate school, Perkinson began to notice an intriguing kind of art—memento mori objects—in those secluded spaces. “They tended to be displayed in groups, like taxonomies,” says Perkinson, now an associate professor of art history at Maine’s Bowdoin College. These peripheral displays sparked a career-long interest in the genre, which is now the subject of his latest exhibition, “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe” at Bowdoin’s Museum of Art (through November 26).
Memento mori, Latin for “Remember that you must die,” is a genre that draws upon the melancholic character of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Eat, drink, and be merry if you must, the objects suggest, because death is right around the corner. Memento mori paintings, drawings, and sculptures can range from blunt depictions of skulls, decaying food, and broken objects to subtler examples whose symbolism is easy to miss. Artists as varied as Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, and Damien Hirst have worked in the genre. These objects had their heyday in the 16th century, when they found an eager audience among wealthy European collectors. Read more