The vogue of vanitas and mortality

Ten-week art history and theory course

Courses and Classes

25 September — 4 December 2017

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Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007, Platinum, diamonds and human teeth. 17.1 x 12.7 x 19.1 cm. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd..

Join international scholars and art world experts for a 10-week series on memento mori and vanitas, exploring the aesthetic and philosophical themes around the transience of life – treated by artists across disciplines and cultures and over the ages from ancient Egypt to the present day.

Memento mori are simply symbolic reminders of our mortality – the limits and transience of life. They can take any form including paintings or sculpture, jewellery or costume. They exist across art forms from the fine and visual arts, and also music and dance. They can be grand or small and personal. Vanitas is a related but broader genre of the arts concerned with the ephemerality of life. Vanitas warn that the earthly pleasures have limitations and should be treated accordingly - with the trappings of power and riches, beauty and luxury all having a definite end.

The aesthetic and philosophical treatment of the themes of memento mori and vanitas date back to the ancient world and have been explored by artists over the ages and across cultures. On the one hand the transience of life is something that unifies us all, but on the other, the treatment of mortality, its implication and visual representation has evolved over time and differs dramatically across cultures.

The skull is one such symbol which has near-universal resonance and yet has been treated in many different and fascinating ways. Early representations of the skull in the arts are dated to the middle ages to serve as a reminder of our short life. In the 16th and 17th century, Flemish artists juxtaposed objects such as the skull with fruit and flowers (in various stages of decay), luxuries such as seashells and glass, as well as common objects like bread. Together these still-lives remain both evocative and beautiful but riddled in mystery and meaning.

This 10-week course explores the history of art through the lens of memento mori and vanitas which at once reflect ideas and people of their time and aim to influence them. The course has a broadly chronological sweep – beginning with the arts of the ancient world through to the middle ages, the Italian Renaissance and Northern Flemish arts into the European 17th and 18th centuries. More recently the Victorian’s treatment of memento mori will be explored through direct reference to rarely seen works in the RA Collections, expertly selected by RA Archivists.

Topics which will be covered include:


• The philosophical foundations of memento mori and vanitas and their changing aesthetic treatment


• The symbolism of items such as flowers and fruit, instruments of music and of time and luxury


• Themes across the creative sectors including fine arts, decorative arts, fashion and music, for example on homo-bulla, danse macabre and the apocalypse

There will be ongoing reference to modern and contemporary treatments of these themes including by artists of the 20th century, such as the Surrealists and many contemporary artists working today.

Notably, in an era which has seen the democratisation of culture on the one hand and the emergence of mass consumerism on the other… it has been left to contemporary artists to continue to explore and evoke themes which challenge and question the transience of life and earthly pleasures. In a world riddled with uncertainty and perpetually transforming, the exploration of such themes could not be more timely.

The course provides an interdisciplinary perspective on core themes in the history and philosophy of art with consideration across the fine arts but also the decorative arts. Leading art historians, art world practitioners and experts will explore landmark artworks and objects into the 21st century which have changed the way we see, think and understand our lives, limitations and our destiny.

● Fully booked

● Cancelled

25 September — 4 December 2017

The Sir Hugh Casson Room for Friends, The Keeper's House, Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly

£540 for full course, £320 for weeks 1 - 5 OR weeks 6 - 10. Includes all materials, light refreshments throughout and a drinks reception at the end of weeks 5 and 10.

Book now