Master of the Memento Morii

Today is the birthday of the great Spanish Baroque artist Juan de Valdés Leal. Like many of his contemporaries, Valdés Leal was a triple threat: he was not only a prominent painter, but also an architect and sculptor. Unfortunately he is not very well-known outside of Spain or specialist circles and I suspect that, at least in part, this has to do with the fact that he had a bit of fondness for what we might consider the macabre. Valdés Leal’s painting goes well beyond the concept of the “memento morii” into something far more arresting.

The memento morii, meaning “remember you must die”, is a very ancient and universal theme in human art, which seeks to remind the viewer of his mortality. It has declined in favor as a thematic subject in Western art, probably beginning with the arrival of humanism during the Renaissance. This does not mean that such depictions did not exist well into the 19th century, particularly on pieces such as funerary monuments, or that they are entirely lacking even today. One could argue that Francis Bacon’s interpretations of Velázquez’ portrait of Pope Innocent X, for example, could be used as a memento morii.

It is not surprising that Spanish artists such as Valdés Leal, working during the Counter-Reformation, would treat these themes. Given not only Spain’s ultra-Catholic position with respect to the Protestant Reformation, but also the Spanish concern with realism, native artists would be very much aware of the fact that, as has been observed by writers far more astute than the Courtier, for the Catholic Spaniard the Crucifixion of Christ is the central meditative point of his spiritual life. This is why, at least in my opinion, the Spanish excel beyond all others in the portrayal of this central event in salvation history.

Valdés Leal’s two greatest interpretations of the memento morii theme were painted for the chapel of the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville between 1670-1672. The most famous of the two allegories is probably the piece entitled “Finis gloria mundi”, or “The End of the World’s Glory”, which depicts the rotting corpse of a bishop surrounded by objects which the world considers to be symbolic of success, and the arm of Christ (identifiable by the Stigmata) appearing from Heaven weighing the good and evil in a balance. On the left, with the symbols of evil, is written “Nimas” and on the right, with the symbols of good, is written “Nimenos”, from the Spanish idiom “ni mas, ni menos” meaning “no more, no less”.

The second piece, entitled “In ictu oculi” or “In the Blink of an Eye”, is the one reproduced below. It shows the Grim Reaper, in the form of a horrifying skeleton, suddenly appearing amidst symbols of earthly power and achievement including books, crowns, scepters, globes – even a Papal tiara. He snuffs out a candle, just as he snuffs out earthly life. He reminds us that he will be coming for us in the blink of an eye, when we least expect it.

The memento morii, or its still-life sibling the “vanitas”, is not something that is pleasant to look at. The Courtier does not necessarily recommend that you, gentle reader, rush out and purchase a skull to sit on your desktop, unless that suits your character and sensibilities – though if it does, he suggests it best to cover it with a tea towel or something when you have the gang ’round for cocktails. Should you not be prepared to go in that meditative direction, then at the very least recalling the work of this great Spanish painter once in awhile might just do us all some good.

“In ictu oculi” by Juan de Valdés Leal (painted c. 1670-1672)
Hospital de la Caridad, Seville
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