Recently excavations at Gloucester cathedral have unearthed some exciting new finds. Perhaps the most intriguing was a ‘Janus’ Bead of the 15th c., so-called because it is ‘two faced’ like the God Janus, with one face gazing forward and the other backward. What makes this one even more interesting, is that it is also a ‘Memento Mori’ item, with a skull on one side and a living man’s face on the other.
‘Memento Mori’ jewellery was quite common in the Middle Ages and later transformed into what was known as mourning jewellery (ie the Whitby jets items of the Victorians.). In one of Richard III’s portraits he appears to be wearing a Memento Mori ring with a skull image. A three-faced bead not unlike the one from Gloucester, but made on the Continent, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the case of the single bead from Gloucester, it appears to have originally belonged to a set of Rosary beads. Momento Mori images were not, of course, restricted to adornment but were also found in art and on tombs–effigies that show both the deceased and/or a decaying corpse are quite common from the later medieval period. Edward IV apparently wanted such an effigy upon his grave but it was never made.
The image on the bead from Gloucester is of a man wearing headgear that indicates high status, and may be meant to be a depiction of the the bead’s owner.