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Morbid Monday: Time Flies, The Evolution of the Hourglass

"Knight, Death and the Devil" by Albrecht Dürer Detail of “Knight, Death and the Devil” by Albrecht Dürer - 1513 (via Wikimedia)

But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail. — Virgil, “The Georgics,” around 29 BC

With two connected glass bulbs, one emptying the sand it contains in a thin, continuous stream until there is no more left, the hourglass is one of the most ancient systems to materialize the flux of time passing inexorably. An upgraded form of the Egyptian clepsydra or water clock,  sand clocks have a mysterious history, difficult to trace, but it can be argued that they became the most popular chronometric system during medieval times in Europe. Hourglasses were easy to fabricate as well as inexpensive; they were used by sailors on ships, and on land to keep track of durations. 

Simon Renard de Saint-André, "Vanitas" (1650) Simon Renard de Saint-André, “Vanitas” (1650) (via Wikimedia). Tilted skull, short and unlit candle, hourglass almost empty. All these meaningful objects echo each other as symbols of the ephemeral nature of life. 

But if the development of mechanical clocks relegated the hourglass to the realm of the obsolete, its granular cascades make it a universal allegory of time itself, an elegy on fugacity. Celebrated by the Northern European Renaissance painters, hourglasses were one of the major visual elements of Vanitas — metaphorical still lives with which, along with human skulls, flowers, and butterflies, offered the viewer a moral meditation on the transitory nature of human existence. 

The 1681 grave of Richard Churcher, the oldest tombstone of Trinity Church CemeteryThe 1681 grave of Richard Churcher, the oldest tombstone of Trinity Church Cemetery. (via Memento Stone

Tempus Fugit — Times flies and quickly, and the antiqued timing instrument has multiplied in cemeteries as an iconographic trope in funeral art. Flanked with wings on its sides, carved on stone or three dimensional, the universal symbol is a common leitmotif which keeps being reinvented through the evolution of memorial art in all its variations and forms. Although the sands of time might have passed, hourglasses keep being a design you’ll encounter pretty much everywhere in the Land of the Dead.

The flamboyant Tombstone of Susanna Jayne in the Old Burial Hill in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and its hourglass flanked with human bones. The flamboyant Tombstone of Susanna Jayne in the Old Burial Hill in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and its hourglass flanked with human bones. (photograph by J.W. Ocker

The colossal portal of Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and its winged hourglasses.
The colossal portal of Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and its winged hourglasses. (photograph by Coyau, via Wikimedia)

"Vanitas / Still Life with Skull, Open Book with Glasses, and Hourglass / The Sands of Time,"  a stereoscopic image by British artist Thomas Richard Williams (1850)
“Vanitas / Still Life with Skull, Open Book with Glasses, and Hourglass / The Sands of Time,”  a stereoscopic image by British artist Thomas Richard Williams (1850). (via Getty Images). 

More recently, as funeral traditions evolved with our contemporary times, the hourglass got an even stranger revival as cremation urn manufacturer In the Light Urns used the timeless motif to create a shrine for one’s cremated remains. Placed inside the glass structure instead of sand, your loved ones become the metaphor of death themselves. The object, as functional as an actual sand clock, can be transmitted from generation to generation, reminding them to seize the day. 

“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust”  

The Hourglass UrnsThe Hourglass Urns (via In the Light Urns)


Morbid Mondays highlight macabre stories from around the world and through time, indulging in our morbid curiosity for stories from history’s darkest corners. Read more Morbid Mondays>

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