A memento mori pocket watch

A fascinating and detailed account of a memento mori pocket watch, said to have been presented by Mary, Queen of Scots, to her Maid of Honour, Mary Seaton. The description is taken from Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, (Edmund Gillingham, ed. Routledge: London, 1894). I have added translations of the Latin inscriptions, in square brackets.

The watch is of silver, in the form of a skull. On the forehead of the skull is the figure of Death, with his scythe and sand-glass; he stands between a palace on the one hand, and a cottage on the other, with his toes applied equally to the door of each, and around this is the legend from Horace “Pallida mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas Regumque turres.” [‘Pale Death, with impartial foot, knocks at the cottages of the poor and the palaces of kings.] On the opposite, or posterior part of the skull, is a representation of Time, devouring all things. He also has a scythe, and near him is the serpent with its tail in its mouth, being an emblem of eternity; this is surrounded by another legend from Horace, “Tempus edax rerum tuque invidiosa vetustas.” [In fact this is Ovid, not Horace. In full: Tempus edax rerum, tuque, invidiosa vetustas, omnia destruitis, vitiataque dentibus aevi paulatim lenta consumitis omnia morte. “Time, the devourer of things, and you, envious old age, destroy all, and little by little you consume all things, having been corrupted, with the teeth of eternity and slow death.”] The upper part of the skull is divided into two compartments: on one is represented our first parents in the garden of Eden, attended by some of the animals, with the motto, “Peccando perditionem miseriam æternam posteris meruere.” [By sin they brought destruction upon posterity.] The opposite compartment is filled with the subject of the salvation of lost man by the crucifixion of our Saviour, who is represented as suffering between the two thieves, whilst the Mary’s are in adoration below; the motto to this is “Sic justitiæ satisfecit, mortem superavit salutem comparavit.” [Thus was Justice satisfied, Death overcome, and Salvation obtained.] Running below these compartments on both sides, there is an open work of about an inch in width, to permit the sound to come more freely out when the watch strikes. This is formed of emblems belonging to the crucifixion, scourges of various kinds, swords, the flagon and cup of the Eucharist, the cross, pincers, lantern used in the garden, spears of different kinds, and one with the sponge on its point, thongs, ladder, the coat without seam, and the dice that were thrown for it, the hammer and nails, and the crown of thorns. Under all these is the motto, “Scala cæli ad gloriam via.” [The ladder to Heaven is the path to Glory.]

The watch is opened by reversing the skull, and placing the upper part of it in the hollow of the hand, and then lifting the under jaw which rises on a hinge. Inside, on the plate, which thus may be called the lid, is a representation of the Holy Family in the stable, with the infant Jesus laid in the manger, and angels ministering to him; in the upper part an angel is seen descending with a scroll on which is written, “Gloria excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonæ volu——” [Glory to God in the highest and peace and good will to men.] In the distance are the shepherds with their flocks, and one of the men is in the act of performing on a cornemuse. The works of the watch occupy the position of the brains in the skull itself, the dial plate being on a flat where the roof of the mouth and the parts behind it under the base of the brain, are to be found in the real subject. The dial plate is of silver, and it is fixed within a golden circle richly carved in a scroll pattern. The hours are marked in large Roman letters, and within them is the figure of Saturn devouring his children, with this relative legend round the outer rim of the flat, “Sicut meis sic et omnibus idem.” [I treat all in equal measure.]

Lifting up the body of the works on the hinges by which they are attached, they are found to be wonderfully entire. There is no date, but the maker’s name, with the place of manufacture, “Moyse, Blois,” are distinctly engraven. Blois was the place where it is believed watches were first made, and this suggests the probability of the opinion that the watch was expressly ordered by Queen Mary at Blois, when she went there with her husband, the Dauphin, previous to his death. The watch appears to have been originally constructed with catgut, instead of the chain which it now has, which must have been a more modern addition. It is now in perfect order, and performs wonderfully well, though it requires to be wound up within twenty-six hours to keep it going with tolerable accuracy. A large silver bell, of very musical sound, fills the entire hollow of the skull, and receives the works within it when the watch is shut; a small hammer set in motion by a separate escapement, strikes the hours on it.

This very curious relic must have been intended to occupy a stationary place on a prie-dieu, or small altar in a private oratory, for its weight is much too great to have admitted of its having been carried in any way attached to the person.

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