Autumn is the Quintessential Memento Mori Season

The decay of Fall heralds in the beauty of our own mortality.

Vincent Van Gogh, “Reaper with Sickle”
Vincent Van Gogh, “Reaper with Sickle” (photo: Register Files)

There is something ineffable about the fleeting transition from summer to winter, which makes Autumn irresistible to artists and poets revering it as the quintessential memento mori season.

Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayst in me behold, by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see'st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.

This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In Thomas Cole’s four-painting series, The Voyage of Life, a traveler sails on the River of Life with his guardian angel.  Each landscape, reflected by the four seasons of the year, depicts an allegory of the stages of life. Infancy is represented with Springtime, with its calm water and flowering buds along the shoreline, followed by the lush summer of youth. Manhood, the third painting in the series, is the most tumultuous and reflects Autumn’s recollection of our own mortality as the Voyager cries out to his Guardian Angel. The entire series is intrinsically linked with the Christian doctrine of death and resurrection.

Thomas Cole (American, 1801 - 1848 ), The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art.

Aside from the colorful splendor of Fall’s display, it’s also a time for harvesting the last crops of Autumn. Reaping, gathering, and storing recall significant Biblical imagery.

“Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” [NAB 2 Cor 9:6]

“His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” [NAB Matt 3:12]

Vincent Van Gogh, Reaper with Sickle

The cooler weather, shortening of days, the last harvest, the dying foliage and decay of nature all around remind us of our mortality and need to prepare for the stark winter ahead. Memento Mori. Remember death. Death comes for us all; therefore, we should prepare our grain stores and reap what’s been sown, call out to Guardian Angel and turn our hearts to the Lord, but also to take in the sunset fading in the West and love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Autumn in the Hudson Highlands (c. 1875), Alexander Lawrie, Jr.