I Am not much given to moralising, especially upon subjects over which sages have moralised ever since human nature has defined itself as human nature. But, some years ago, I was forcibly plunged into a moralising mood upon the very trite and well-worn subject that heads this paper, by a spectacle which I saw on my first visit to the picturesque old city of Salzburg. Perhaps the train of thought, which it induced, had been already slightly forced upon my mind by a previous circumstance.
I had been wheedled, contrary to my usual creed and my usual wont, into being lionised about the place, its old castle, and its panoramic views of mountain and plain, ravine and torrent, by a German friend. Among other of the sights of Salzburg, he had insisted upon my being presented to the lady, then living, who had once been the wife of one of the greatest composers of all time. The introduction had taken place through the intermediation of her second husband, who announced her to us as “the inconsolable widow of Mozart!” This self-immolation at the shrine of vanity had possibly already prepared me to murmur the words —”vanitas, vanitas, omnia vanitas!”
We followed up this singular tribute to the memory of the dead, by a visit to the picturesque churchyard of St. Peter’s, in which most of the notabilities of Salzburg are interred. A more romantic burying-ground — unless, indeed, that belonging to the village of Hallstadt on the lake of the same name in the Austrian Salskammergat — can scarcely be conceived. But I am not going into descriptive raptures now. At the foot of a staircase, which is cut in the precipitous rocks, and leads to an old hermitage on the heights above, the traditional residence of St. Rupert, the first Bishop of Salzburg, and hollowed out of these same rocks, was a small grotto-like chapel, the entrance to which was opened to us by an old monk, the guardian of the sacred ground. The first sight that forcibly attracted observation in this species of chapel, was an accumulation of skulls enclosed in glass-cases, and ranged in rows one above the other along the walls.
They were those, we were told, of the privileged personages who had been permitted burial on that spot, and lay in death beneath. Singular enough was this strange custom! but more singular still the fact, that, above each skull was placed the painted portrait, in living colour, of its possessor before the flesh had rotted away from the ghastly bones, with the name it had borne in life, duly registered in gilt letters on the picture. Our natural inclination was to suppose that a spirit of stern morality had dictated this fearful practice, that the close approximation of the semblance of what had been life with the hideous reality of the work of death, was intended as a practical application of the motto — Respicejinem — that the dead were thus used to read a visible warning-sermon to the living they had left on earth.
We were communicating such sentiments one to the other, when I observed a mocking smile upon the lips of the old monk. Upon being questioned he shrugged his shoulders, and then laughed aloud. It was considered a great honour, he told us, to have the skull and portrait placed in the chapel; that only the nobly born and wealthy were allowed the proud privilege; that a considerable sum of money was paid for this exclusive advantage; that he was not aware that there was any intention, in any man’s mind, of reading a warning lesson or preaching a practical sermon upon the nothingness of life, or the frailty of beauty, or the charms that are bestowed but to wither into so terrible a consequence; but that he knew very well that people were very vain, even before death, of the purchased privilege of having their skulls thus exposed, and that the relations, after death, were always very vain of the exposure. No wonder, then, that this coquetry with Death sent me away moralising upon the trite old topic — vanitas, vanitas, omnia vanitas!
I had already seen in the receptacles, called dead-houses, in Roman Catholic Germany, where the dead are by law exposed to public view, before their final hiding away beneath the earth — I had already seen, I say, the yellow waxy cheeks of dead old women tricked out with false curls, and highly rouged. I had seen the beauty, cut off in her prime, lying on her last bed, decked in the gayest ball-attire, with her chaplet of roses on her head. I had seen the officer of state and the military man dressed (in death) in the stiff embroidered pomp of worldly pride and glory. I had seen in the streets of Naples the exposed corpse borne aloft to burial, in gawdy attire, with the terrible caricature of life in its painted face.
In all these was the repulsive evidence of the last vanity in death, But nothing so much as the strange spectacle in the chapel of St. Peter’s, at Salzburg, had preached so loudly the words of the preacher: Vanitas, vanitas omnia vanitas!
J. Palgrave Simpson.