Memento Mori and Mourning jewellery

February 29, 2012 | No Comments

Like several of the other subjects I once spoke about also this one is known since ancient times. Memento mori jewellery do exist since Roman times and revived in the late Middle Ages, but combined with Christian teaching on the need to live a good life.

These both sensitive subject are beautifully described in the book ‘Rings, Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty’, by Diana Scarbrick, wherein a complete chapter is devoted to ‘Memento mori and memorial rings’.

In Roman times subjects like skeletons, skulls, butterflies and most frequent Cupid-like figures holding a torch of life with the flame extinguished are the common symbols used in memento mori images of those days. Later on cross bones, rotated bezels and other symbols were added to memento mori jewellery. By the mid-17th century the memento mori ring had merged with the memorial ring marking the death of an individual, identifiable by the black enamel, initials and dates, and coat of arms, transforming them from exhortations to godly living into memorials of people. During the 18th century the ritual of mourning was scrupulously respected, it was a mark of homage paid to the institution on which society was founded, namely the family. The astonishing ‘Harley Memorial ring’, commemorating their son, is for me by far the most splendid example I’ve ever seen for showing the grief towards a beloved deceased’.
Like with so many other surprising details Diana Scarbrick tells about the white enamelled hoop, instead of black, meaning that the deceased was unmarried. As well as the fact the memento mori iconography was also used in wedding rings, intended to remind a prosperous couple of the vanity of the riches.
For me one of the most awe-inspiring memento mori ring designs is made by French Court jeweller Gilles L’Egaré in 1663: there are skulls round the sides of the bezel some with bat wings, others crowned with laurel, supported on a hoop decorated with all implements -spade, pick etc.- used by a grave digger. Personally I was very surprised that I could find this drawing (from Scarbricks book) at the online research collection database of the British Museum! Amazing, eight pages of this book, ‘Livre des ouvrages d’orfèvrerie, 1663’ are visible for free. This specific ring is one of the rings on the drawing above right in the database. Enjoy it! ..and don’t forget to enlarge the print image to see the details perfectly.

On my photo-stream you are able to view photos and drawings of the staggering plaited mourning hair jewels, like bracelets and brooches and pendant earrings.

The books I would like to recommend are:

‘Rings, jewelry of power, love and loyalty’, by Diana Scarbrick, €45, ISBN: 978-0-500-51364-4. I hope that my admiration for this book became clear in the above text. If not, then I have failed enormously. This book is unique and admirable!
An Introduction to ‘Sentimental Jewellery’ by Shirley Bury, for the Victoria & Albert Museum, ISBN 0-11-290417-3, GBP 5.-. This recommendation because it was my first acquaintance to this subject at the time I studied jewellery and having a Victorian mourning ring in front of me.

The ‘Illustrated Dictionary of symbols in Eastern and Western Art’, by James Hall is the English variant of the Durch “Hall’s Iconografisch handboek’ (Dutch version ISBN 90-74310-05-2). This recommendation because it’s simply indispensable for everyone who likes it to see more than just the picture.


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Margriet Sopers

Margriet Sopers, FGA

Having a diploma in jewellery, FGA and a propaedeutic of the Academy of Art followed-up by interesting years as a jewellery expert at Sotheby's & Gemeentelijke Krediet Bank, as well as being a member for years of the Society of Jewellery Historians, I am glad to share with you today's world of jewellery.

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