"Remember Death." It doesn't sound like an appropriate topic for the New Year, but it actually is. In these days of examining one's life and making "resolutions" about one's future, what could be more apt? The recurring theme in the history of art, which I studied extensively, reminds the viewer that life is short, bear that in mind as you go about your day, every day. It is depicted in different ways, sometimes as a lush assemblage of beautiful items in glass and silver and gold, laid out with ripe fruits and other luscious foods as one sees in the Netherlandish Old Master still life paintings. Sometimes it is more obvious, the portrayal of a skull, or specifically a winged skull, which signifies life after death. The Puritan gravestones in New England show this motif quite often, but it originated much earlier. The concept dates back to antiquity, most probably ancient Rome. In the Bible, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes says that "all is vanity." Paintings, such as those done in the Netherlands in the vanitas style were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. Common vanitas symbols include not only skulls and the above-mentioned items, but also, other more subtle reminders of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, symbols of decay; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way. Over the centuries many clocks were marked with the phrase "tempus fugit" or "time flies."
I wear a ring with a winged skull on it. It was designed to be a mourning ring, which has some historical precedent, worn in remembrance of a loved one lost to death. 2010 was a year of much loss for me; my first cat died, my mother died; I moved away from a house where I thought I'd live until I died, but it didn't turn out that way. I went through a year after that filled with the anxiety of a cancer scare, punctuated by many trips to the hospital for tests, X-rays and MRI's, followed by biopsies. By December 2011 my husband and I decided the time was right to do something we had talked about for over 20 years...going to Colonial Williamsburg for the Christmas holidays. It was wonderful. And in the silversmith's shop we found the ring. It seemed to speak as a reminder of everything I had been through, and of everything that really mattered... I know many people who see it don't understand but it's more for me than it is for anyone else. I am the one who needs to not forget....As we begin another New Year, may I always remember.