One of my favorite artists is one of the great Spanish painters of the Siglo Oro, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1644).
Well-known for his pious Catholic themes, and his special knack for capturing the tenor and essence of the personalities of friars and monks, he was an acquaintance of Diego Velázquez, and a forerunner to Bartolomé Murillo, only to be ultimately overshadowed by both.
One thing I like about the dark, shadowy starkness of his paintings is that I feel like I am looking straight into real, authentic seventeenth century faces, which could just as easily be twenty-first century faces.
One thing, though, that I find curious about the paintings. The skulls. Almost every painting of a Franciscan friar has the subject contemplating a skull (as in the image I use for my “logo”. The one the Minor Friar uses for his blog is similar). Was this a spiritual aid, a pious practice peculiar to the Franciscan Order, or a wider practice that was common for the Church universally at that point in history? I don’t know a lot about it, but I’d guess that it seems to be a clear reference to Memento Mori. ("Remember that you are mortal”). It seems that the focus of the contemplation must have been on life’s transience, the closeness of mortality, the grand cycle of life, death, and regeneration… A reminder that from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
In 1569, St Teresa of Avila visited the Discalced Carmelite monastery founded by St. John of the Cross at Duruelo, and wrote:
The following Lent, while on my way to the foundation in Toledo, I passed by there. When I arrived in the morning, Father Fray Antonio was sweeping the doorway to the church with that joyful expression on his face that he always has. I said to hirn: "What's this, my Father; what has become of your honor?" Telling me of his great happiness, he answered with these words: "I curse the day I had any." When I entered the little church, I was astonished to see the spirit the Lord had put there. And it wasn't only I, for the two merchants, my friends from Medina who had accompanied me there, did nothing else but weep. There were so many crosses, so many skulls! I never forget a little cross made for the holy water fount from sticks with a paper image of Christ attached to it; it inspired more devotion than if it had been something very expertly carved. The choir was in the loft. In the middle of the loft the ceiling was high enough to allow for the recitation of the Hours, but one had to stoop low in order to enter and to hear Mass. There were in the two corners facing the church two little hermitages, where one could do no more than either lie down or sit. Both were filled with hay because the place was very cold, and the roof almost touched one's head. Each had a little window facing the altar and a stone for a pillow; and there, too, the crosses and skulls.
The Wikipedia article on Memento Mori claims:
To the Christian, the prospect of death serves to emphasize of the emptiness and fleetingness of earthly pleasures, luxuries, and achievements, and thus also as an invitation to focus one's thoughts on the prospect of the afterlife. A Biblical injunction often associated which the memento mori in this context is In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis (the Vulgate's Latin rendening of Ecclesiasticus 7:40, "in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin.")
Other Paintings by Zurbarán
Paintings by Other Artists On a Theme
The Skull of Zurbarán
-- Salvador Dali
Head of St Jerome pointing at a skull
-- Lucas van Leyden