Health and Romanesque: MEMENTO MORI

Health and Romanesque: MEMENTO MORI

The human being is doomed, due to his spiritual restlessness, to question himself about the ultimate foundation of reality and the reason that drives him to exist.

For this reason and throughout history, men have expressed in different literary, sculptural and pictorial supports, his own hymn to human frailty, the banality of worldly pleasures and how insubstantial everything is in the face of death.

Beginning in biblical times where the famous “Vanity of vanities” of Ecclesiastes is declared (Vanity of vanities, all is vanity), going through the “memento mori” (remember that you have to die) from Ancient Rome and later to the baroque with the “vanity” (all in vain), that It does not allude to the notion of pride or arrogance but rather to the illusion of life and the meaninglessness of worldly possessions.

The mode of “vanity”, booming in Baroque influenced by Cartesian relativism adopts a great variety of symbolism to decorate the need to express that existential void: ripe fruit, withered leaves or clocks as an allegory of the passage of time, insects and rot to indicate the decomposition of the body, chests of money and jewels as symbols of the insubstantial nature of material goods, etc.

But the detail that almost always reveals the presence of a scene from “vanitas” is the appearance of a human skull.

Linked to “memento mori” of the Romans, the skull warns of the fragility and transience of the human being after the passage of time. Tertullian, in his Apologetic, relates that when a consul returned triumphant to Rome, there was the custom of appointing a servant to accompany him and whose mission was to hold the laurel wreath on the victor’s head while whispering in his ear the phrase “remember that you have to die”, as a warning that he should behave like a man, not like a god, and remind him that death, which is egalitarian and leveling, cuts with its scythe all the privileges of hierarchy and fortune because, before it, the richest only has a shroud .

The skull symbolizes the true face of the beholder: “look to you good in me, because I am your mirror”.

Thus, the presence of a skull in artistic expression indicates the “memento mori” or “vanitas”, both formulas that remind you that you are mortal and that induce disappointment. of this world or also called, end of illusion.

Virtue without prudence is vain virtue

Considered Prudence as the adequate virtue to discover the deceit of the world, nor is it by chance that the skull is also one of his attributes.

Also known as practical wisdom or understandingAristotle elevated prudence to the rank of intellectual virtue, arguing that it is his wise deliberation that allows distinguishing and differentiating the good from the bad.

Concept what both Cicero and Seneca adopted: prudence “consists in knowledge, of good things, of bad things, and of things that are neither good nor bad» (Cicero. nat. deor. 3, 138)

Ovid in his Fasti (Ov. fast. 1, 89-144) refers to that type of knowledge starting from the literary image of the god Janus, whose double face allows him to simultaneously observe the input (birth) and the output (death), capacity also linked to Hecate, the triple-faced goddess who guards the crossroads of three roads, capable of visualizing the three phases of time with the wisdom that this entails, both aspects, who will later inherit the image of prudence. (2)
Prudencia, Ark of Saint Augustine in Pavia s. XIV

Therefore, through their diverse faces and eyes, prudence has the power to know the three states of time taking the memory of the past (memory) to apply in the present (intelligence) according to what he foresees will happen in the future (providence).

“Prudence anticipates how much can foresee, observe and move away from you, long before it happens, all that I can harm you” (Seneca. epist. 98, 7).

The same, although with more rhetoric, exposes the Catholic Church: “It is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in all circumstances and to choose the right means to achieve it” (Catechism, 1806).

In short, prudence is having a sound mind to know how to use the right and fair measure in each action.

Undoubtedly, its qualities are equated to the wisdom offered by the famous Greek aphorisms that persist in moderation, nothing too much“, and in self-knowledge,”know yourself”. Knowing yourself means acquiring lucidity about your own nature and the limitations to which it is subject.

And it is here where the allegory of the skull acquires meaning as an attribute of prudence, since from now on man he looks to the past to realize that his future is perishable, mortal, in short, a skull.

Possibly, the best way to represent this relevant concept in order to become aware of it, is to impress the staff showing the one who will be his face after death, who equalizes and drags all human beings in his round, whoever they are, regardless of their age and without considering their social status.

Within the diversity of variable attributes for the same allegory and, in contrast to the baroque that The more elements are included in the representation, the better. This was not the case in the Romanesque, which sought to specify as much information as possible with a minimum of symbolism.

Thus we find an example in the so-called “Adam’s skull”, at the feet of the crucified Christ, an image compendium of different theories but which all converge, in one way or another, on the presence and meaning of death.

Or in the so-called “woman with a skull” on the Platerías tympanum in Santiago de Compostela, sculpted by one of the most celebrated Romanesque workshops, whose artistic capacity when it comes to representing exceeds all the expectations of its contemporaries. In this case, a hieratic woman with Greco-Roman clothing, remains seated in a distinguished seat holding on her lap a human skull to which she points with her index finger.

And here we have it, expelled from its original context and confined in a puzzle of surviving carvings. This great woman who points to a human skull in her lap, she was long since stripped of her environment and placed in a hostile environment.

Other people, other times, and other vacuous knowledge have given it a different reputation. Dispossessed of her dignity status, she is now a transgressor, an adulterous woman who, mortified in her punishment, must daily kiss the skull of her lover.

Paradoxically, that learned prudence that took care to keep our understanding healthy together with the purity of our soul, that revealing vanity that in the days of its creators pointed with his finger at the inexorable end of our ephemeral sleeplessness, has experienced what he insists so much on warning, the insubstantiality of honors, the contempt of the world and the certainty of his death.

Magdalena by Francesco Furini 16th century

Deprived of its healthy virtue, the same passage of time has moved the symbols of the prudent vanitas towards another religious receptacle; specifically to a biblical character who has always been assimilated by the Church to sin, to vanity but also to salvation, the figure of the penitent Magdalene.

Undoubtedly, it is the scene of the present moment, when Magdalena, contemplating her future in the skull, glimpses the futility of her past life and understands that her future salvation lies in the decision she makes in the now. Prudently, the figure of the Magdalene exhorts us to be prepared at all times to appear before God who, on Judgment Day, will ask to be accountable for our actions.

“Look at yourself well in me, because I am your mirror.”

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