Memento mori: PSHE, RE and Art teaching resources and ideas

By Rachel Hayward | 26 June 2010
Photo showing a skull made from resin clear plastic with Smarties chocolates inside

Detail from For the Love of Chocolates by Valerie N'Doye. Courtesy Worthing Museum and Art Gallery

This amazing artwork For the Love of Chocolates by artist Valerie N'Doye has inspired our memento mori resource round-up for you. We think it's an accessible way into a classroom discussion on life and death. Courtesy of the artist, we can offer you a pdf of For the Love of Chocolates for whiteboard use.

N'Doye's skull forms part of Worthing Museum and Art Gallery's Double Take exhibition from July 3 until September 25, 2010.

Her inspiration? Valerie N'Doye says: "I had been working on building a face from the skeleton upwards and became inspired by the ubiquity of the skull as an image in popular culture - in fashion and music. Even children love skulls - you see pirate skull and crossbones on everyday items such as lunch boxes."

"I also admired Damien Hirst's famous skull, For the Love of God. The skull is associated closely with death in art but I liked Hirst's idea of his diamond encrusted skull as showing victory over death. I wanted to remove the dark connotation of skulls - make them more colourful and be more playful. Using Smarties came from having children of my own and the fact that women love chocolate - it's certainly at the other extreme to diamonds anyway. "

Discussion idea...Why not ask the class what they think Valerie N'Doye is saying with her Smarties skull and what it says to them about life and death?

Painting showing two rich men in Tudor costume in standing with objects including a globe and books and instruments to show how clever the men are. There is also an image of a skull in the foreground of the painting as a memento mori to remind the viewer about death and to make the most of life

(Above) The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. © National Gallery, London

Memento mori resources from the UK's museums
We've produced a pupil-friendly introduction to memento mori - reminders of death in art - on our kids' site Show Me.

The National Gallery
How about using paintings to talk about what life and death mean to us now and how that compares with people's experiences in the past?

The National Gallery's website has zoomable artwork and teaching resources you can use. We recommend a Tudor memento mori painting called The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. Holbein's rich male subjects are portrayed alongside objects that show how they are making the most of their lives. This is made more poignant by the fact that life in the 16th century was precarious with fatal epidemics a fact of life. Holbein himself died of the plague in 1543 whilst in London. The crucifix in the painting may allude to the Christian idea of spiritually preparing for death in life.

Discussion idea...You could compare and contrast with how traditional memento mori objects are used today. Think about what Valerie N'Doye says about the use of skulls in fashion and popular culture... Are these images lessened in their power now? Do they mean the same to us?

The National Gallery's online, cross-curricular Primary Teachers' Notes on The Ambassadors give you lots of teaching ideas.

Screenshot from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery online magazine called Bedazzled showing a close up of a skeleton memento mori ring.

(Above) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's online magazine resource Bedazzled.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Bedazzled is an online fashion and style magazine created by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The section Love and Death, see pages 44-51 of the magazine, is a great way for pupils to understand the significance of memento mori objects and includes fascinating examples from the collection. There is even a useful explanation of what memento mori means.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: