Memento Mori Skull Print
This skull block I carved in October 2017 is what really started my interest in old New England tombstone design. I carved this the first year I had my Salem gallery/studio, and I was really hesitant to even do it. I love Salem, but it does have an aspect of touristy carnival vibe to it. Not to knock the people that want to come and get a picture in a stockade while wearing a witch hat, but there is an incredible richness to the city, especially its wide and varied history. Thats what attracted me to Salem in the first place, and the acceptance and tolerance the city has for peoples individual choice. Anyway, I walking thru the Burying Point Cemetary on Charter St, which besides being the oldest cemetery in Salem, has several prominent early citizens. It has a Mayflower passenger, Captain Richard More, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin who were Salem Witch trial judges, and Samuel McIntire. It was Nathanael Mather’s gravestone that struck me the most:
The skull with wings, otherwise known as a memento mori symbol, is the most iconic colonial image. The graveyard is the only place you really see the Puritans expressing their abstract spiritual ideas through art, and the earliest examples have the most visceral imagery. I realized that it was the perfect way to express my underlying creepy vibe and yet it would keep me out of the tacky category. And so with 3 weeks left in my first season, I cut this block and it’s ended up being my most in demand print.
Nathanael Mather is also part of an important (yet heinous) Salem family. He was the son of Increase, and the brother of Cotton, both influential forces is the Salem Witch Trials. He only lived to be 19, as his gravestone poetically states as “19 winters”. Nathanael graduated from Harvard in 1685. He was an extremely serious student, entering Harvard at age 12. According to Historian Sidney Perley: “Nathaniel Mather entered Harvard at the age of twelve, and took his first degree at the age of sixteen, when he gave a Hebrew oration, so great a scholar had he become at that tender age. His acquaintance with general literature and science of those times was extraordinary; and he excelled in mathematics, classics and theology. He was a hard student and a good scholar, but too close application, probably without relaxation, produced ill health. At the age of fourteen, he dedicated himself to God. His dedication consisted of devotion to prayer for personal sanctity, and he deliberated so much and so seriously that had became morbid and melancholy. He had contracted ill habits of posture of body, which, persisted in, produced effects which made him appear like an old man…It is said that his brother Cotton wrote the epitaph upon it….“ (Sidney Perley, The History of Salem, Massachusetts, Vol. 3, pp. 231-32.)
So he literally studied himself to death.
His stone was carved by William Mumford, who was one of the more promient stone carvers at the time. Carving gravestones wasn’t a primary occupation for many that did it, it was usually someone who did wood carving or had some other kind of craft/artistic skill. A lot of times the grave stone cutter wasn’t known, but William Mumford had a distinct style that is recognizable if you know what to look for. He was also married to the daughter of William Copp, who owned Copp’s Hill Burying ground in Boston, MA.
If you’re interested in any of my Memento Mori Prints, please check out my esty store:
If you’re interested in a custom print, just email me and I’ll be happy to chat!