Memento Mori from BL Add 39636, ff. 5-8, 11-12, 30-32, f. 6
Historiated initial 'D' of a Memento Mori, measuring 125 x 110. On the reverse, partial four-line stave, musical notation and text: '..antur'. Image taken from f. 6 of Cuttings from a Gradual. Written in Latin.
The Triumph of Death was a fairly common theme for late medieval artists. Like the another theme, Memento Mori, it was intended to remind viewers of mortality and death. Triumph of Death often depicts an army of skeletons massacring people of every age and gender. Sometimes, a wild carnivalesque atmosphere was emphasized in the popular motif of the Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death. Understanding the macabre spirit of death-culture in late medieval Europe requires an understanding of the terror and panic of epidemic disease, and, more generally, a fear of catastrophe and sudden death. The population of the medieval world experienced death first-hand: wide-scale death, physical decay, and the subsequent crumbling of societal infrastructure. The Black Death was the period in Europe from approximately 1347 to 1353, when bubonic plague ravaged and initiated a long-term period of cultural trauma. In fourteenth-century Europe, the mortality rate from plague was between 50% and 90% of those people who contracted the disease. The most recent works increase estimates of the total population loss to 65% in both Asia and Europe. Previous estimates state that about one-third of the population died from the disease in the years spanning the Black Death.
In art, mementos mori are artistic or symbolic reminders of mortality. Memento mori is a Latin expression meaning "remember that you have to die". It was then reused during the medieval period, it is also related to the ars moriendi ("The Art of Dying") and related literature. Memento mori has been an important part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and by turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.