Death and Memento Mori

Medals were often used to mark and even celebrate the death of an individual or death in general. The famous Pazzi Conspiracy medal by Bertoldo (no. 26) depicts the attempted assassination and assassination, respectively, of Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano during mass in the cathedral of Florence. Part portrait and part narrative depiction, the compositions display Bertoldo’s inventive approach to medals. Centuries later in the Netherlands, a number of medals recorded the violent public execution of the De Witt brothers. One example  (no. 90) shows the gruesome scene of their bodies at the base of a torture device on the reverse.

The locket containing the portrait medal of a man known only by his surname (no. 60) was probably worn close to the heart. “Ready-made” medals commemorating death (see nos. 81, 83) could be purchased and personalized with inscriptions. At the top of the medal commemorating the deaths of two young children (no. 83) sits a child blowing bubbles that are destined to burst—a memento mori image similar to skulls, hourglasses, and skeletons.

Inset with coins and Jan de Vos’s vanitas medal (no. 77), the Münzbecher (coin-cup) presents on its exterior the medal’s obverse bust of a young woman. On the inside, visible once the drinker lifts the cup to his lips, the woman becomes a skeleton (the medal’s reverse). Its inscriptions admonish the viewer not to fear death but to seize opportunities to live life before death comes.

  • portrait medal depicting male bust in profile, with group of men working below

    Bertoldo di Giovanni (ca. 1440–1491)
    The Pazzi Conspiracy, 1478
    Copper alloy, cast
    Diam.: 2 9/16 in. (6.56 cm)
    Scher Collection; Promised gift to The Frick Collection

    Cat. 26

  • Silver medal of a balding man with mustache and beard, facing three quarters to the right and wearing ruff and cross

    Attributed to Balduin Drentwett (1545–1627)
    Michael Leonhard Maier (b. 1520), dated 1580
    Silver, cast
    Diam.: 1 5/8 in. (4.16 cm)
    Scher Collection; Promised gift to The Frick Collection

    Cat. 58

  • Silver medal in a partially gilt case with chain depicting the coat of arms of the family Rieter von Kornburg

    Unknown German artist
    Member of the Rieter von Kornburg Family (patrician of Nuremberg, likely died in 1637), not before 1631 (medal and locket); not before 1637 (mounting)
    Gilt silver, cast (medal); silver, partially gilt (mounting and suspension chains, probably the original ones)
    Silver in frame: 1 9/16 × 1 5/16 in. (3.96 × 3.36 cm)
    Framed: 2 × 1 15/16 in. (5.08 × 4.97 cm)
    Scher Collection

    Cat. 60

  • Silver medal depicting a woman with hair elaborately pinned up beneath a diadem, wearing pearl teardrop earrings, a necklace ending in a pearl pendant that hangs between her bare breasts, a cape, and a gown, pinned with a sunburst brooch

    Cup inset with Jan de Vos (ca. 1578–after 1619)
    Allegory of Vanitas, dated 1614
    Silver, with gilding
    Cup: 5 1/16 × 3 15/16 × 4 in. (12.8 × 10 × 10.2 cm)
    Medal only: 2 1/4 × 1 3/4 in. (5.7 × 4.4 cm)
    Scher Collection

    Cat. 77

  • Silver medal depicting two flying genii, one clothed and one nude, sounding horns, each holding a ribbon ending in a tassel and a banner; below, a corpse wrapped in a shroud and resting, head supported by a bolster, on a tomb; beneath, a cartouche flanked by two contorted skeletons

    Wouter Muller? (1604–1673)
    Memento Mori for Cornelius Nuck (1637–1717), dated 1717
    Silver, cast
    2 7/8 × 2 5/8 in. (7.38 × 6.72 cm)
    Scher Collection

    Cat. 81

  • Silver medal depicting two flying genii, nude, pointing toward the clouds from which rays of sunlight stream. They support a banner; below, a woman crowned with laurels and wrapped in a shroud, her eyes closed and head supported by a roll of cloth, reclines upon a sarcophagus, fronted by a cartouche flanked by genii

    After Wouter Muller (1604–1673)
    Deaths of Maria Henrica (1731–1734) and Johannes Petrus van Brienen (1734–1734), dated 1734
    Silver, cast
    2 7/8 × 2 5/8 in. (7.33 × 6.64 cm)
    Scher Collection

    Cat. 83

  • Silver jugate portrait medal of the brothers Johann and Cornelius de Witt

    Unknown artist
    Cornelius de Witt (1623–1672) and Johann de Witt (1625–1672), dated 1672
    Silver, cast
    Diam.: 2 in. (5.09 cm)
    The Frick Collection; Gift of Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher, 2016

    Cat. 90

Facebook Twitter Threads