December 2012 - Memento Mori
Unknown author, Neapolitan School, XVII century
Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 49,5cm x 65,5cm
Inv. No. 54/01
The Royal Palace
A little known baroque work from the art collection of the Royal Compound - Memento mori, by an unknown Naples artist, gives us a magnificent version of a baroque interpretation of the triumph of time. The setting for the composition are the ruins of a Roman town. Imaginary monuments of a long gone and destroyed empire can be seen in every plan of the painting. The main focus of the whole composition is set in the first plan of the painting on the very edge of its virtual space. Allegory of Death is shown in its new baroque attire – in the form of a skeleton with wings holding a sandglass. Death, with a posture and expression of an uncorrupted pride, shows to the visibly scared girl this extinguished and disappearing world. Wealth of the material world is spilling from a chest underneath the girl’s feet – jewels, sceptres, crowns, golden spears, adorned cloths, pitchers, chalices and amphora, mirrors and sandglasses. They are all riches, which inexorably fade while facing the arrival of the last hours. In the upper left corner an antique sculpture has a dual meaning – it is a symbol of ruin and our prologue in this drama of ephemerality, with a light movement she is removing a curtain and showing us the material world that we, spectators, could understand its warning.
Since the early renaissance antique ruins occupy an important place in a religious as well as nonreligious compositions. Their purpose is to remind the spectator of the sublime beauty of the classical period, this eternal model of all renaissance humanists and to glorify art and culture of the Roman Empire. Baroque, from the beginning of XVII century, brings a differing perception of this phenomenon. In the age of great crisis and uncertainty, age in which once undisputed leadership of the Roman Catholic church was denied, an when the Thirty Year Long War was destroying Europe, the ruins were given a different form and interpretation. In paintings similar to Memento mori, they indicate a perfect, but transient world. Also this became a favourite baroque symbol of passing time. The ruins in this painting represent a symbolic setting for the whole moral narrative. As shown in this painting the warrior symbols of power - triumphal columns, spears, flags and armour, in the baroque period celebrate transiency and oblivion. Death and a girl represent death and life, momentary and temporary characteristic of beauty and final coming of death. The girl’s beauty is a metaphor for the shortness of human existence. The insignia of power and wealth from the chest testifies unstoppable power of death and that we are all equal in the face of it.
A special feature in this painting represents a mirror placed on the edge of the painting. Its position suggests that it reflects the expression of death surrounded by the landscape of destruction. Therefore the mirror has a symbolic message stating that all should look into their souls if they want to prepare for their end. The statue in the upper part of the painting suggests that the life is a deception, pure allusion and, like the theatre scene, it ends as soon as the curtain falls.
The Neapolitan School
In the XVII century in Naples the combination of influence of Italian, Spanish and Dutch art, due to geographic, political and economic situation, led to the creation of an Italian-Spanish school of painting. This specific style of painting, so called tenebrism (tenebroso (ita.) – murky), derived from Caravaggio, was best exemplified in the work of Jusepe de Ribera. Typical subjects of the Neapolitan School paintings were presentations of torture and martyrdom, realistically composed with an accent on human form and emotion. After Caravaggio’s model main technical merits were painting in the low colour key and emphasizing light and shadows. Works of the Neapolitan School painters are often characterized as dramatic and violent because of their brutally realistic compositions painted with intense contrasts, with tortured bodies of saints emerging from the shade.