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Memento Mori: Death Comes to the Table

Giovanni Martinelli
Memento Mori: Death Comes to the Table
Italian, 1600/04–1659
oil on canvas
38.5 x 48 inches (97.8 x 121.9 cm)
Gift of an anonymous benefactor; Museum purchase by exchange, Mrs. James W. Alsdorf; and acquired with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Raclin, Mr. and Mrs. Russell G. Ashbaugh Jr., and Mr. Joseph R. Skelton

This unsettling scene features four expensively dressed figures seated at a damaskcovered, beautifully appointed table, where their enjoyment of music as they eat and drink is interrupted by the appearance of a skeleton holding an hourglass with its sand about to run out. The painting’s subject is vanitas (Latin for “emptiness”); it censures humankind’s pursuit of ephemeral pleasures instead of attention to the inevitability of death. Many memento mori (reminder of death) symbols are included, such as the skeleton, hourglass, and insect.

The startled musician at the left raises his hand from the mandolin, as if to ward off the intruder; the woman in black points to the apparition; and the central figure in red shrinks away from the untimely visitor, her hands anxiously clenched. The young man at the right looks over his shoulder incredulously, grasping the table for support and touching his chest with his right hand; his raised brow and wide eye reflect his surprise and fear at death’s touch. In the upper left, another diner looks on in shock.

Giovanni Martinelli worked primarily in Florence, though he came from Arezzo, and concentrated on religious and moralizing scenes such as this. His chiaroscuro style of dramatic light and shadows was based on the work of Caravaggio.