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Memento Mori -- Looking at Death in Art and Illustration

Presented by Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery at Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, Nashville TN

Mar 12 2015
May 23 2015
Memento Mori -- Looking at Death in Art and Illustration

Drawing on the combined resources of the Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery, the Eskind Biomedical Library Special Collections, local museums, and several private collections, Memento Mori – Looking at Death in Art and Illustration will reveal multiple perspectives on the nature of death and our attempts to memorialize the dead in order to give meaning to their lives. The selection of artwork creates an interdisciplinary approach to our understanding of the role of death and mourning in society from the sixteenth century to the present.  The reception and exhibition are free and open to the public. Memento Mori – Looking at Death in Art and Illustration will remain on view through May 23, 2015.

The oldest work in the exhibition is a second edition manuscript by Andreas Vesalius, de humani corporis fabrica (On the fabric of the human body), dating from 1555. It was the authoritative book on human anatomy for several centuries, and will be opened to a page showing a skeleton, acting alive save for its lack of flesh, that is reflectively pondering a human skull, perhaps an allusion to the temporal nature of life itself. This seminal example of medical illustration is a visual manifestation of the fact that, for many centuries, “medical exploration took place most frequently in the domain of death,” as Holly Tucker, one of the exhibition’s co-curators, writes in her book Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution. The piece, like many on display, is truly a blend of historic, artistic, and scientific study.

Material featured in the exhibition covers a wide range. Artworks and illustrations that span the past four centuries explore themes such as the Danse Macabre or Dance of Death, the medieval allegory of Death’s equalizing power, represented visually by a vivified skeleton. Additionally explored are deathbed scenes, a reminder of times when the end of life was often a gathering of family and loved ones, as well as images of the living mourning over those they have lost and art created as a memorial to those who have passed. Works included are by artists such as Ivan Albright, Andrea di Bartoli, Enrique Chagoya, Sue Coe, William Edmondson, Hans Holbein, Käthe Kollwitz, Georges Rouault, Thomas Rowlandson, Stephen Tourlentes, Andreas Vesalius, Werner Wildner, and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

With much thanks to partnering institutions and individuals, the exhibition also includes a rich display of material culture surrounding death and historical mourning practices. Perhaps the most striking of these are a silk mourning dress dating from 1909, a simple tombstone carved by the famous African American sculptor William Edmondson, and a death mask of the physiologist Jan Purkinje. The master craftsmanship that went into creating these items and others, such as intricately woven hair jewelry, remind us of the many forms of mourning and memorialization and complement the exhibition’s look at the linkages of medicine, life, and death through the ages.

MEMENTO MORI – LOOKING AT DEATH IN ART AND ILLUSTRATION  is organized by the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery and co-curated by Joseph Mella, director, Holly Tucker, professor of French Studies and professor of Biomedical Ethics and Society, Christopher Ryland, assistant director at the Eskind Biomedical Library, and James J. Thweatt, coordinator for historical collections at the Eskind Biomedical Library. The exhibition is supported, in part, by the Ewers Gift for Fine Art, with additional support provided by the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt University.



Free Admission

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Additional time info:

An opening reception will be held on Thursday, March 12th from 5:00pm to 7:00pm in Cohen Memorial Hall.

Gallery hours are Monday – Friday 11:00am – 4:00pm; Saturday and Sunday 1:00pm – 5:00pm through April 30th.

From May 1st through May 23rd, gallery hours are Tuesday – Friday noon – 4:00pm; Saturday 1:00pm – 5:00pm, closed Sunday and Monday.

* Event durations (if noted) are approximate. Please check with the presenting organization or venue to confirm start times and duration.


Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery

Cohen Memorial Hall, 1220 21st Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203

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