This small ivory carving conveys one of the most profound themes of the late Middle Ages. The death mask joined to the gruesome skull serves 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 important part of medieval devotion. The rosary is a collection of these texts devoted to the Virgin Mary, which became popular by the fourteenth century. The strings of beads used to assist those in saying the long sequences of recitations became known as rosaries. This carving is pierced vertically for suspension, consistent with its original function as pendant to a rosary or chaplet, a shorter string of devotional beads.
Artist French
  • Pendant to a Rosary or Chaplet
Date between 1500 and 1525
Medium Elephant ivory with traces of polychromy
Dimensions Overall: 2 3/4 × 1 1/4 × 1 1/2 inches (7 × 3.2 × 3.8 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase, General Art Purchase Fund, Insurance Recovery Fund, David L. Klein, Jr. Memorial Foundation, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Fund, Henry Ford II Fund, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hamilton Fund for Medieval Art, with additional funds from Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hamilton
Accession Number 1990.315
Department European Sculpture and Dec Arts
On View European: Medieval and Renaissance W221, Level 2 (see map)
Inscriptions Inscribed, around the collarbone below the two faces: O MORS QUAM AMARA EST MEMORIA TUA [translated: O death, how bitter it is to be reminded of you]
(Blumka Gallery, New York, New York, USA);
1990-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
ZUM STERBEN SCHOEN. Schnutgen, Cologne. cat. no. 45, vol II, p.86.

Barnet, Peter, ed. Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age. Exh. cat, Detroit Institute of Arts. Detroit, 1997, cat. no. 78, pp. 277-278.

Barnet, Peter. "Selected Recent Acquisitions." Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 66, no. 4 (1991): 50 (ill.).

MEDIEVAL MASTERWORKS 1200-1520. Exh. cat., Blumka II Gallery. New York, 1990.

Darr, A. and T. Albainy. "Acquisitions of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1988 - 1999," The Burlington Magazine 142 (June 2000): 406, no. IV (ill.).

Lowden, John, and John Cherry. Medieval Ivories and Works of Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Toronto, 2008, p. 133.

Perkinson, Stephen, ed. "The Ivory Mirror," The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe. Exh. cat., Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Brunswick, 2017, pp. 57–58, 61–62, 203, pl. 36 (ill.).