“Skeleton in a shroud, seated on a tomb”, France, 1547

Ivory, carved in the round
Inscription on the phylactery: 1547
9 x 8.8 x; 3 cm
Bequest of Baronne Henri de Rothschild, 1927
Inv. 25660
© Les Arts Décoratifs

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Death, wrapped in a shroud, sits on the edge of his tomb. The skeleton rests one elbow on an hourglass; his right hand is on a partially unrolled phylactery bearing a French inscription that means “you are you will become what I am.” This type of inscription was very common on tombs and on the depictions of “The Three Living and the Three Dead” that often decorated chapels, such as the one on the Campo Santo in Pisa which shows Death striking down young debauchees as he passes. This inscription recalls the Italian memento mori tradition (“What you are, I once was, what I am, you will become”). The skeleton is usually depicted with two symbols of death: the hourglass, representing the inevitable passing of time, and the scythe, an attribute of Saturn. The association of time and death was omnipresent in this period, troubled by the Italian Wars and the Wars of Religion. Representations of death such as danses macabres and ossuaries followed a long medieval tradition. Widely circulated through engravings, sculptures and paintings, they illustrated the idea that death makes all things equal (omnia mors aequat). The inscription on the phylactery of the skeleton in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is in French, and cannot postdate the work; this was therefore an object designed for private devotion, made by a French artist whose identity is unknown. There was a considerable production of ivory skeletons and skulls in France in the sixteenth century, but also in Germany and the northern countries. An ivory piece attributed to southern Germany, also dating from the sixteenth century, represents a skeleton on its tomb (former Kenneth Jay Lane collection, New York); it is so similar to the one in Paris that it is tempting to see it as French rather than German. The skeleton in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs is carved with great attention to anatomical detail; the crude realism of the figure perched almost casually on the edge of the tomb serves to heighten the sense of dread inspired by evocations of death.

M. B.

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