Mid-autumn memento mori for the times

Stephanie Shih’s characterization of a digital still life she recently posted (reproduced here with permission), combining elements from Western and Eastern (especially Chinese) painting traditions and located both in mid-autumn times and in a time when we are surrounded by death in the pandemic:


(The Facebook version of this image was much darker, mostly very black, but this version highlights the rich colors in the composition. The resolution isn’t great, so it’s hard to identify all the elements of the composition.)

Background: Western still lifes. From my 6/19/20 posting “Flowers and a watch”, about an extraordinary painting (Still Life with Flowers and a Watch) by 17th-century artist Abraham Mignon:


Still lifes are almost never just attractive arrangements of objects, but resonate with sociocultural meanings of all sorts; they’re about us.

They typically feature flowers and/or foodstuffs (though the genre has been stretched wildly). Then from Wikipedia on still lifes (in my posting):

Especially popular in this period [in the 17th century] were vanitas paintings, in which sumptuous arrangements of fruit and flowers, books, statuettes, vases, coins, jewelry, paintings, musical and scientific instruments, military insignia, fine silver and crystal, were accompanied by symbolic reminders of life’s impermanence. Additionally, a skull, an hourglass or pocket watch, a candle burning down or a book with pages turning, would serve as a moralizing message on the ephemerality of sensory pleasures. Often some of the fruits and flowers themselves would be shown starting to spoil or fade to emphasize the same point.

Vanitas paintings convey the memento mori theme. From Wikipedia:

Memento mori (Latin ‘remember that you [have to] die’) is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. The expression memento mori developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.

Somewhat wilted flowers (as in the upper right hand of #1) are a standard memento mori symbol. Then the knife, in the center of the composition, is there to cut moon cakes (and a fig, already sliced in half and so not much longer for this world), but also to  represent a tool for slicing off the thread of life.

The sphere of Chinese domesticity. The knife shares the center of the painting with a very prominent black Chinese tea pot (possibly of clay) being heated on an ornate black Chinese iron brazier (Wikipedia: “A tea stove is a specialized type of Chinese brazier or stove designed to boil water.”).

Also in the center space, though not as prominent as the tea pot and the brazier, are the crucial moon cakes, evoking the family but also middle of autumn.  From my 9/24/18 posting “Sleep on, harvest moon”:

today is the Mid-Autumn Festival in China and other East Asian countries (and elsewhere), so it’s the prime day for mooncakes / moon-cakes / moon cakes, paper lanterns, and family reunions.

On moon cakes, from Wikipedia:

(#3) Mooncakes and tea

Typical mooncakes are round pastries, measuring about 10 cm (4 in) in diameter and 3–4 cm (1 1⁄4–1 1⁄2 in) thick, and are commonly eaten [both] in the Southern and Northern Chinese regions. A rich thick filling usually made from red bean or lotus seed paste is surrounded by a thin, 2–3 mm (approximately 1/8th of an inch) crust and may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. Mooncakes are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by tea.

The margins of the composition. On the left, mostly items appropriate to Western still lifes; on the right, mostly items appropriate to Chinese still lifes (plus those books). In both cases, some of the items are merely generally thematic (often, a grape is just a grape), but others of the flowers and foodstuffs have quite specific associations in the culture they are drawn from (red roses in the Netherlands, persimmons in China).

In the case of #1, I can’t make out what many of the objects are, and on the Chinese side, I don’t know the cultural context at all, so I can’t do much more analysis. (What I’ve already said might not fit with Steph’s intentions, in fact.) Like many Western still lifes I’ve seen, all I can say is that it’s a carefully composed formal arrangement of fascinating and often puzzling objects.

One Response to “Mid-autumn memento mori for the times”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Arnold–thank you for this! It’s great to hear what about what the viewer sees in the image, it’s sometimes things that I hadn’t consciously considered myself, or interpretations that jive but I wouldn’t have voiced the same way. I enjoy your take on the fig, especially.

    Online photo sharing is generally frustrating, with resolution issues and such. Some other details in the photograph:

    * bok choy (the leaves behind the grapes) – cabbage is usually assocated with wealth in Chinese culture.

    * white flowers – Chinese symbols of death

    * I replaced the burned down candles of Western vanitas paintings with incense, also because it allowed for an emphasis on smoke (thanks to the inspiration of our current California ecosystem)

    * jade pendant (on books) – long history throughout China, including its role in symbolizing power but also heart in funerals.

    * embroidered mirror (below teapot) – a nod to Western vanitas traditions

    * I replaced the overturned roemer wine glass of Western traditions with an overturned teacup, and some spent tea leaves.

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