The churches of Rome house a considerable part of the priceless art collection that draws visitors from around the globe.
There seems to be an almost unlimited number of churches with famous artwork; so many in fact, that you could spend most of your time just visiting one after the other.
On our last trip to Rome, I visited the Church of Santa Maria Del Popolo. Famous for paintings and sculpture by the likes of Raphael, Bernini, and Caravaggio, it’s a veritable who’s who of Renaissance heavyweights.
The Renaissance paintings didn’t disappoint, and while memorable, they weren’t nearly as fascinating as the artwork not mentioned in my guidebook: skeletons, skulls and bones … all over the place!
While to American eyes these skeletons wouldn’t be out of place at a Halloween haunted house, there’s actually a deadly serious (pun intended) message here: Memento Mori or “Remember that you will die.” The Black Death had just wiped out half the population of Europe, so there were lots of graveyards – frequently marked by skulls and bones. These grim reminders made certain that the message of death and mortality wasn’t missed by anyone.
Rich parishioners wanted a primo burial spot in church, and were required to pay for the monuments, artwork, and chapel. It didn’t take long for hungry artists (like Bernini) to see the market, and voila: skeletons, skulls and crossbones in the chapels, on the walls, and even on the floors.
By using skeleton art, the church (tending to its afterlife business) was reminding its members to be concerned about what happens after death. The physical body is nothing but bones, and the soul goes to one of two places.
This art was compelling in a creepy and macabre way, and it made a nice change from a steady diet of Renaissance masterpieces.
This is a church after all, so I certainly appreciate their “Memento Mori” message to help keep sinners in line. However, the heathen in me says another take-away could be the oft-quoted “Carpe Diem,” or “Seize the Day,” (RIP Robin Williams). But I think that a man of the times probably said it best. John Heywood wrote in 1546:
“Whan the sunne shinth make hay. Whiche is to say,
Take time whan time cometh, lest time steale away.”
This is my favorite because, even though it’s legit, it sounds like a line from a B-grade Robin Hood remake. I see Robin turn to Little John and say:
“Fetchuth me yon flagon o’ mead.”