Images of Death in Roman Churches
In the 17th century funerary monuments in Roman churches began to incorporate explicit images of death. This often took the form of nothing more than a skull, but in some cases death was fully personified, commonly in the shape of the Grim Reaper, with or without his hourglass, and or scythe.
Such an image is known as a memento mori (remember you must die), a reminder to us all of the inevitability of death.
A good example of a memento mori can be found in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The funerary monument of the Roman architect Giovanni Battista Gisleni (1600-72) is made up of his portrait with the inscription 'NEQUE HIC VIVUS' (Neither living here), and the marble sculpture of a skeleton wrapped in a white winding-sheet with the inscription 'NEQUE ILLIC MORTVVS' (Neither dead there).
Above the skeleton are two medallions: one of a chrysalis and the inscription 'IN NIDULO MEO MORIAR' (I shall die in my nest), the other of an emerging butterfly and the inscription 'UT PHOENIX MULTIPLICATO DIES' (As the phoenix I multiply the days).
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My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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