From the V&A’s website:
This small ivory carving conveys one of the most profound themes of the late Middle Ages, serving as a memento mori, a reminder of the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death.
The repetition of prayers and liturgical texts was an important part of late medieval devotion. The rosary, which became popular by the fourteenth century, is a collection of these texts devoted particularly to the Virgin Mary. Strings of beads to assist those saying the long sequences of recitations also came to be known as rosaries. Such carvings as this one are pierced vertically for suspension, consistent with their original function as pendants to rosaries or chaplets (shorter strings of devotional beads).
Dating from the late Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, there are many surviving memento mori pendants from rosaries. Frequently double-sided, the pendants are often decorated with a skull on one side and a youthful face on the other. This is a rare example of a pendant showing four figures and no close analogue is known.
The words inscribed on the fillet encircling the dying man’s brow, VADO MORI, may be an allusion to the tradition of ‘Vado Mori’ poems which had their origin in the thirteenth century. In such poems, or ‘carmina de morte’, a distich is put into the mouth of each type of individual, young and old, poor and rich, learned and unlearned, layman and cleric, of low and high social grade. Each distich begins and ends with the words ‘Vado Mori’.
Wild, huh?! I mean, those faces and expressions are bone-chillingly amazing. Reminds me of the gigantic wooden bead that was at one point a recent acquisition at the Rijksmuseum (they call it a “prayer nut”, which is both funny and kind of accurate). These are absolutely fascinating objects that I’d really love to learn more about.
Rosary Bead, c. 1525-50. French or Southern Netherlandish. Carved ivory with traces of red and black paint, 5.1 x 3.7 x 3.4 cm. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Accession number 2149-1855.
Photos taken from the V&A’s online collections catalogue. Check it out here!