In the 16th Century, the Best Office Decor was a Tiny Rotting Corpse.
It makes no difference if you spend your working life sitting at a desk, or at the wheel of a car, or maybe in the kitchen of a restaurant. Many people have the habit of keep visible, at their workplace, but also at home, something that gives a motivational boost to better face the day: a photograph, a mini Zen garden, or a significant quote. Objects were quite different, in use up to a couple of centuries ago but very fashionable in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which had to remind everyone of the fragility of life and the vanity of earthly things.
They were the so-called memento mori (remember that you will die!), objects, statues or paintings created for the specific purpose of remembering the destiny that accumulates all men: death. These macabre “reminders” had to remind their holders of the transience of material goods: it is much more useful to concentrate on one’s own soul and on the otherworldly life, the eternal one! Although already philosophers such as Plato, and then Seneca, emphasized the importance of reflecting on death, it was with Christianity, and the specter of divine judgment, that a good death, an end after a good and honest life, became the true purpose of the life.
In the 16th century Europe, the memento mori were life-size statues, but also tomb engravings, or small sculptures suitable for being held on a table. The predominant image was that of a skeleton standing, with shreds of flesh attached to the bones. Sometimes, the decomposing corpse holds an object in hand, as in the sculpture attributed to Hans Leinberger, where the dead man holds a parchment with a Latin inscription between his fingers, which translates as follows: “I am what you will be. I was what you are. For every man is this so. ”
Of particular importance is the funeral statue of the French René de Chalon, Prince of Orange, who died in battle at the age of only 25. The wife did not want a statue that would remind her of his earthly grandeur, but a life-size skeleton, with his left hand stretched upwards, to offer her heart to God. The statue is known as “transi”, representation of the transience of earthly life.
With the passage of time, the memento mori became portable and changed style: human figures depicted half as they were alive, and for the other half as the skeletons that would become.
Or, if someone was afraid of forgetting death when he was away from home, he could opt for small pocket-sized items. Regardless of their size and level of grisliness, the memento moris all offered the same message: life is short, you will die, and earthly possessions don’t matter. The fact that this message was contained in an earthly personal possession is just part of the paradox that is the life.