Friday, October 06, 2006

Memento Mori... I love Zurbarán, but what’s with the skulls?

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

St. Jerome
--Albrecht Dürer

Head of St Jerome pointing at a skull
-- Lucas van Leyden


Rashfriar said...

Peace! you are right about the memento mori. It is part of the idea that the 'last things' should be part of our reflection on how we live daily in this world. I know many find it morbid, but I always try to remember that it reminds us not how short or bad this life is, but rather that this life is only part of something larger. God bless you!

Jeff said...

Peace, Rashfriar!

Thanks so much for visiting, and thanks for providing some perspective and background on that.

Very nice blog you have. I've bookmarked it and I'll be stopping in. It's great to see how this ring of Franciscan blogs has been growing lately. Keep up the good work, and God Bless.

crystal said...

Great pictures, Jeff! I'm going to save the one of Jesus :-) I never noticed before that your logo had a skull.

Paula said...

"in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin"

yes, this is the point. i found the same meditation in the very old Sayings of the Desert Fathers from Thebaid.

Jeff said...


Yes, it's hard to spot in the small profile version. I hope I'm welcome to stop by your place anyhow. :-)

Thanks, Paula. :-) The desert fathers make for a good link beween the East and West.

friar minor said...

When I joined the friars, I brought a model skull with me and put in on my desk when I moved in. The postulant director asked what it was all about. I told him I had seen one in all these pictures of friars and thought it was standard equipment. So I immediately got the useful reputation of being funny and off-beat.

I still have it, though it lost a tooth in one of my moves. I keep my zucchetto on it.

Liam said...

"Standard equipment"! Ha!

Jerome is usually shown with a skull (and a lion).

Jeff, have you ever been to the church of the Cappuchins on Via Veneto in Rome? The crypt is decorated with human bones -- some formed as skeletons in Franciscan habits, others just used as decoration. It is weird, but it expresses the same idea. Some pictures:

Joe said...

Hi Jeff, its me (the prodigal son stopping in for a visit). Great to see things (you) still going strong here at "aun estamos vivo". I'm hoping that things have tapered down a bit for me and I can get back into the habit of stopping in. On the skulls: to quote an expression here in Spain "Life: Nobody gets out of it alive!"

Great stuff as always my friend. Peace!
un abrazo,

Jeff said...

Friar, Liam, Joseph,

What's up lads? Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. I've been up to my eyeballs in work.


Standard equipment! Ha. Well, I'm sure your postulant director has heard stranger things... God bless those guys. With the zucchetto and the space from the knocked out tooth, you can stick a little cigarillo in there, and it will look somewhat like the Zig-Zag man.


You know, I've been to Rome, but I didn't stop by that Church. I did see it, however, when I was doing a little research on this post. That was really something. It reminded me of the catacombs underneath Paris, but that is a whole different dynamic.

St. Jerome, the great Bible scholar... An irascible old fellow, so they say. Not surprising that he is usually pictured with a lion. Speaking of scripture and lions...

"The lion and the lamb shall lie down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep." -- Woody Allen

Joe! Great to "see" you again brother! Sorry I missed you while you were in town last summer. Give my love and regards to everyone, and thanks for stopping in.