Memento Mori – Remember death, or remember More?

In 1515 Sir Thomas More left England was sent as part of an embassy to the court of the future Emperor Charles V. For over twenty years the tax imposed on English exports to the Spanish Netherlands was growing year on year and the embassy was sent to negotiate a new trade agreement with the future emperor.  It would be More’s first trip abroad and his friend the Humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam saw it as an opportunity for More to mix a bit of pleasure with business and provides him with letters of introduction to a couple of fellow Humanists in the Low Countries, Peter Gilles and Hieronymus van Busleyden.  More became friends with these men and fired up from a very fruitful exchange of radical political ideas, he begins to write a book.  The work that emerges, which begins as a series of letters to his new friends, was a radical work.  It was an account of a perfect, but fictional island state called Utopia (nowhere).  It was a state unlike the ones he and his friends lived in a, a place where all goods were held in common, where the state was free from trade issues and free from the ambition of princes.

Erasmus was overjoyed with his friend’s work and arranges for to be printed in Leuvan in 1516.  Still filled with excitement at More’s radical Humanist ideas, he also sends a copy of Utopia to his friend the Swiss printer Johann Froben.  He commended the text to Froben and asked him to print it, if in his unbiased opinion, he felt the text was worthy of the press.  In December 1518 More’s Utopia was printed by Froben on his press in Basel.  The book Froben produced is perhaps one of the most beautiful books to come out of any press in sixteenth century Europe. 

The frontispiece in Froben’s edition of Utopia, is executed with great skill.  The title is presented as a scroll set against a delicate classical frame, the frame inhabited with putti and decorated with garlands of fruit and leaves.  As is indicated by the inscription ‘Hans Holb’, the frontispiece was designed by an artist who would become one of the greatest painters of the Northern Renaissance, the twenty one year old Hans Holbein the Younger.  In 1515 Hans and his elder brother Ambrosius, both then teenagers, moved to Basel from Augsburg to find work.  During their time in Basel they undertook a wide range of different work, but the printer Froben was one of their main employers. 

Most of the other engravings in Froben’s Utopia are by Ambrosius rather than Hans Holbein and his tour de force is his map of the mythical island state.  In Holbein’s visualisation of Utopia the island state is shown set in the midst of the ocean, with sailing plying their way through the waters.  In the centre of the country lies the capital ‘Amaurotum’ (Mist-town) on the river ‘Anydrus’ (Waterless). The river’s source ‘Fons Anydri’ and mouth ‘Ostium Anydri’ are labeled.  In the bottom left hand corner Hythlodaeus, the fictional sailor who discovered the island, points out the geography of the state to another figure, perhaps Thomas More himself?   As well as being a representation of More’s creation, the map also has a deeper representational meaning.   Look carefully and you will notice that the various elements of the map together form the image of a skull.  This map is a memento mori; if we look on this map, not only do we take in the geography of Utopia, but are forced to consider our mortality too and our part in the kingdom of Christ.  Dig a bit deeper and there is yet another layer of meaning to this image.  It is said that there was a once debtor who owed Thomas More money and he reminded More that after death he would have little use for it: ‘memento morieris’ (remember we will die) he said to More, to which More replied: ‘you mean memento mori aeris’ — remember More’s money.  Word play and clever puns appealed to Thomas More and his circle of friends and this image of the skull appearing out of his Utopia, is not only a reminder of death, but is also a reminder of More’s name.   


Ambrosius Holbein died shortly after he produced his map of Utopia, but his brother Hans would travel to England in 1526 and become the court painter to Henry VIII.  His introduction to England was made by Erasmus and Thomas More.  This book not recalls the literary and philosophical genius of Thomas More and his circle, the artistic skill of the Froben and the Holbein brothers, but reminds us of what a well-connected world that they all lived in.

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