Momento Mori

Schedel, Hartmann. Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, VII 1493).
The National Library of Russia [Российская национальная библиотека]:, f. 264r.

The Nuremberg Chronicles Momento Mori illustration

By kind permission of the National Library of Russia [Публикуется с разрешения Российской национальной библиотеки]

All Our Chronicles

Early modern people were extremely keen on collecting quotations on a variety of topics. Many readers used special commonplace books for this purpose, but others, like the reader of this copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, kept their collections in the margins of printed volumes.

“Mors ultima linea rerum est’ – ‘Death is the final end of things”

This page of the Chronicle closes the penultimate section of the book – the ‘Seventh age of the World’ – a description of the Apocalypse and a reflection on death and salvation. Under the woodcut depicting the ‘danse macabre’,  printed verses speculate that death is better than life. A 16th-century reader of the Chronicle continued these reflections by writing down aphorisms on the vanity of life, death, and the afterlife on the same page. His or her quotes came from the Bible and from classical sources, including Horace (‘Mors ultima linea rerum est’) and Aristophanes (‘Una e deis: Mors nulla captat munera’). Slight fluctuations of handwriting signify that although all quotations are written by the same person , they were added at different times. This page shows how early modern readers could use a history book for a commonplace collection of thoughts on death and the vanity of human life.

Although we cannot identify this reader, we know the later institutional provenance of this copy. It was part of the library of more than  40, 000 volumes which belonged to one of the oldest secular high schools in Germany – Halberstadt Gymnasium in Saxony. The town severely suffered during the World War II, and the Chronicle, along with some other books, was transferred to the National Library of Russia in 1948


The Nuremberg Chronicle was not a book on devotion, but often reflected readers’ personal piety. The Chronicle’s predictions of the Apocalypse made them contemplate the vanity of life, the meaning of death, and consider their hopes for salvation. The margins of the Chronicle preserve manuscript prayers and pious quotations, as well as recording births and deaths in readers’ own families.