Hunt Museum Docent Blog Series – Momento Mori – Pomander skull

Alas, poor Yorick!

Reminders of mortality and sensory overload – skulls and perfume

Authors: Jean Tierney & Jill Cousins                                                                                                                                           Time to read: 3 minutes

As Hunt Museum Docents, Jean (co-author of this blog) and her sister Helen MacMahon became interested in researching our July object of month, the Gold Skull Pomander / Momento Mori, in 1999.  This Blog is based on their research. Weighing 25.7 grams, it is plated with a thin sheet of polished gold and has the date of 1679 inscribed on bottom, flat surface.

Figure 1+2: Pomander or Momento Mori Skull Hunt Collection Object MG 086 – Public Domain.                                                              Figure 3: Flat side of Pomander or Momento Mori skull showing date inscribed.

The inscribed date is usually the date on which the person the Momento Mori is remembering, died.  It is likely to be quite close to the date of creation of the piece. Some Momento Mori are just that, reminders of our mortality.  This one leaves us in no doubt about its message. On one side of its inside divider is written Man Proposes and on the other but God Disposes

Figures 4 & 5 showing inside of Pomander or Momento Mori, Hunt Collection, Public Domain, on left “man proposes” on right “but God disposes”

A quote from the German born, Thomas à Kempis’,  Imitation of Christ (1380-1471)

“In him they confide every undertaking, for man, indeed proposes, but God disposes, and God’s way is not mans” (1)

There are other equivalents in the Hunt Collection such as the skeleton in the box: which has the Inscribed around the edge the words  “Disce Mori – Lern to dye”

This Gold Skull however served a dual purpose, being also a pomander or container of perfumes.  The word “Pomander” derives from the French pomme d’ambre” (amber apple), the amber being ambergris, a waxy substance from a sperm whale which, when warmed slightly, gives out a pleasant perfume.  Ambergris is still used in the production of perfume (2).   Pomanders, of this sort, pre date the advent of liquid perfume, holding instead solid scented herbs and spices such as rosemary, rose-geranium, basil, lavender, cinnamon or annis, often mixed with the ambergris to form a paste.   In this version the four tiny compartments shown inside the back of the skull of Figure 4, will have held such a mix of herbs and spices. Worn as fashion accouterments, they were thought to guard against infection, but were also a means of disguising or covering more unpleasant smells.  

Most surviving examples of these pomanders are made of silver and were items of jewellery. They were very fashionable in the time of King Charles II and several 16th century portraits show such pomanders hanging on chains, or chatelaines, from women’s girdles, and can be seen in portraiture of the period.

The Gold skull/Pomander of the Hunt is unusual because it has no means to hang from a chain or girdle, so was likely to have either been carried in a pocket or sat on a desk or flat surface.  Pockets were introduced into men’s clothing during this period (4), so the assumption that our Momento Mori/Pomander belonged to a man, who carried it in his pocket, is maybe not so far fetched.

Figure 10: Helen MacMahon (1930 -2015) Hunt Museum Docent with Pomander or Momento Mori skull in her palm.

Helen MacMahon (1930 -2015) is shown on the left holding the Hunt Museum Gold Skull Momento Mori/Pomander in the palm of her hand.  In a way this blog is a Momento Mori to Helen herself, who was a Hunt Docent for 20 years.

Figure 9: Portrait of Mary Dudley by Hans Eworth, showing pomander  hanging on Girdle chain; National Trust, UK, PD (3)

Figure 11: Bernadette Cotter- REPAIR Piano Wires,  detail 2015-2016

Similar collections of Momento Mori can be found in the Burrell Collection (5) in Glasgow and in the Villa Giulia, Rome.  And incidentally the Hunt’s Skeleton in a box inspired Bernadette Cotter’s Repair exhibition earlier this year at the Limerick City Art Gallery.

Next month: Olmec Man

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1 The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, Book 1, Chapter 19, The Bruce Publishing Co. Milwaukee, USA, 1940

2 Wenham, Edward: Pomander, Connoisseur 1934, April - P228-232

3 Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney, wife of Sir Henry Sidney |Source= |Date=c. 1550-55 |Artist=Hans Eworth {{PD-old}}, National Trust, UK

4 Unsworth, Rebecca: Hands Deep in History: Pockets in Men and Women's Dress in Western Europe, c. 1480–1630 Costume, Volume 51 Issue 2, Page 148-170, ISSN 0590-8876 Available Online Sep 2017

5 Portrait of a Collector - Burrell, Richard Marks 1983, Richard Drew Publishing Ltd ISBN 10: 0862670373  ISBN 13: 9780862670375


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