Press Release

Groundbreaking Exhibition of Memento Mori from the Renaissance Opens This Summer

Event Date: 
14 February 2017
Brunswick, Maine

With over 60 objects, this exhibition incorporates rarely-seen loans from major North American and European museums and works from Bowdoin’s collection revealing new insights into early modern European conceptions of life and death.

Brunswick, Maine, February 14, 2017 —The Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) will present a groundbreaking exhibition on the visual culture of death, sin, and human nature in early Renaissance Europe. Featuring a wide range of objects that have never before been displayed in North America, the exhibition reveals new insights into these works through original scholarship across the humanities. On view from June 24 to November 26, 2017, The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe reveals how, in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, Renaissance artists sought to address the critical human concern of acknowledging death while striving to create a personal legacy that might outlast it. Encompassing major loans from institutions across Europe and the US—including works from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—the exhibition will include over 60 artworks that functioned as both ostentatious displays of wealth and as moralizing, memento mori objects. The Ivory Mirror will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue, featuring new scholarship that reconsiders concepts of life and death as imaged through objects of the early modern era.

Curated by Stephen Perkinson, Peter M. Small Associate Professor of Art History at Bowdoin College, The Ivory Mirror brings together exceptional examples of memento mori, a genre of artistic and literary imagery that emerged in the early Renaissance to remind viewers of their inevitable death, to question how art historians have conventionally interpreted these objects and to propose new ways of considering their significance. Precious objects—from ivory prayer beads and gem-encrusted jewelry to exquisitely carved small table sculptures—draw attention in spectacular fashion to the depictions of death, dying, and decay that proliferated in popular culture between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, when mortality rates were perilously high.  

“We’re thrilled to present the unique and rare works included in The Ivory Mirror, which are largely unfamiliar to audiences outside of Europe. These extraordinary objects bring to life a culture of mortality and reveal the emergence of new conceptions of the self in the middle ages, of the place of humanity in the world, and of the nature of achievement, pleasure, and transgression. They raise important questions about and inform new perspectives on our present fascination with such imagery, and provide a welcome opportunity to consider the new cultural, philosophical, and scientific discourses that contributed to the rise of the memento mori at the dawn of the sixteenth century,” said Anne Collins Goodyear, co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, “The research of curator Stephen Perkinson and his collaborators sheds new light on these fascinating objects, enabling us to better understand the complex origins and associations of memento mori imagery, the larger artistic and literary context of which they were a part, the nature of the workshops that designed them, and, ultimately, how these objects have come to be collected as works of art.”

“While we recognize the Renaissance as an age of exceptional human progress and artistic achievement, macabre images proliferated in precisely this period: unsettling depictions of Death personified, of decaying bodies, of young lovers struck down in their prime. This provocative imagery runs riot in the remarkable array of artworks featured in The Ivory Mirror. For many scholars, these gruesome objects seem to be a last gasp, as it were, of a dying medieval world view, of a culture obsessed with the certainty of death, terrified by the threat of divine judgment, and incapable of enjoying earthly life,” continued curator Stephen Perkinson, “The Ivory Mirror rethinks that traditional view, seeking to understand these morbid images as intimately bound up in the period’s shifting conceptions of the self, of the place of humanity in the world, and of the nature of sin and pleasure. It demonstrates that these objects simultaneously reminded viewers not only of life’s fleeting nature but also of the need to both enjoy one’s time on earth and to live a moral and responsible life.”

The BCMA will display highlights from their own collection alongside artworks loaned from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Walters Art Museum among others. Highlights of the exhibition include:

Hans Holbein the Younger’s Dance of Death woodcut series, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston;

• Several stunning momento mori pendants and rosary beads in ivory on loan from the Victoria and Albert, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Walters Museum of Art, and from the BCMA’s own collection; and

• A boxwood sculpture from the School of Conrad Meit, Vanitas, ca. 1525, on loan from the Harvard Art Museums;

• A copy of Andreas Vesalius’s momentous anatomical compendium, On the Fabric of the Human Body of 1543, on loan from Francis A. Countway School of Medicine, Harvard University;

Illuminated manuscripts and early printed books of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries on loan from the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California; and the Clapp Library of Wellesley College;

Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Fall of Man (Adam and Eve), 1504, from the collection of the BCMA;

• Masterful decorative arts objects on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum by unknown artists, including an early seventeenth-century gold and enamel ring, an enameled, jewel-encrusted gold brooch, and a silver scent case from the early sixteenth century.


The fully-illustrated 240-page catalogue includes nearly 190 color images and five essays penned by scholars from institutions such as the British Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Ivory Mirror celebrates advances made in the scholarship of memento mori in visual and literary culture of the early modern era, and will provide a platform for further interdisciplinary engagement. The BCMA will host a range of related public events, including a festival of recent films, musical and theatrical performances, poetry readings featuring ancient, Renaissance, and Early Modern poems on the carpe diem theme. In addition, an international symposium at Bowdoin in November 2017 on medieval memento mori will feature lectures by distinguished academics and museum professionals from Great Britain and the United States. 

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Master S (Alexander van Brugsal?), Netherlandish, Memento Mori, ca. 1520, engraving, with contemporary hand coloring. Courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

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