by Stephen Perkinson. Bowdoin College Museum of Art; distr. by Yale University Press, September 2017. 280 p. ill. ISBN 9780300225952 (h/c), $50.00.
Reviewed March 2018
This catalog accompanied a groundbreaking exhibition of the same title held in 2017 at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Comprised of largely unfamiliar works, it documents the culture of mortality in early modern Europe and features new scholarship written in conjunction with critical new discoveries, making it an important addition to any library. Now more commonly and collectively known as memento mori, the complex origins and associations of the objects and the larger artistic and literary context of which they were a part of, the workshops that designed them, and how they came to be collected are explored in five scholarly essays accompanied by approximately 200 color illustrations (with sixty-one splendid full-page plates).
The authors afford readers the opportunity to explore this often misunderstood genre through carefully documented provenance research in addition to scientific, literary, artistic, and philosophical discussions of this time period. How to not only frame but visualize death? Always present and manifestly visible from the mid-fourteenth century onwards due to the Black Death, a culture of mortality arose revealing the emergence of new conceptions of the self, the nature of achievement, and the roles of pleasure and transgression in daily life as the medieval world gave way to the modern. Not just preoccupied with the plague, the era was more about the emerging prosperity accompanying developing trade networks and attempts to juggle Christian piety, wealth, and the fashionable moment with living a good life.
In his introductory essay, Stephen Perkinson explores how these exquisite objects sit on the edge between hopeful and morbid, the medieval macabre and the light of the dawning Renaissance. The next essay by Elizabeth Morrison discusses the concept of death in beautifully crafted images featuring inventive, often hellish, memento mori found in illuminated manuscripts. In one of the most important essays Katherine Baker discusses Parisian carver Chicart Bailly. Her collaboration with Perkinson and archival research into Bailly’s estate inventory uncovered an extensive ivory workshop, led to the attribution of pieces to Bailly, and proved the use of book illustrations as sources of inspiration for the carver. The collecting histories and context of memento mori beads are considered in Naomi Spearman’s chapter. Maggie Solberg’s concluding essay examines the “Poetry of Death.”
Wealthy Christians purchased worldly goods sometimes made of elephant ivory; mirrors, beads, and statuettes standing in for the look, texture, and feel of bones. Death as exquisite objects held in the hand to be caressed, touched, gazed at. The coup de theatre this jacketless book performs now becomes clear: the cover features a raised skull the holder immediately wants to touch and run fingers over before entering the realm of beautiful death.