You probably think this post is about you, don’t you?
Just kidding. Carly Simon, her songs and her narcissistic rocker exes are a topic for another day, perhaps, or another dimension. Catchy tune, though. I’m more inclined right now to discuss self-absorption of a different sort, the sort often pictorially warned against throughout Western art history; centuries ago as Christianity’s arty side’s way of salvaging immortal souls from both fire and brimstone, and more recently just to remind us that death still waits for us all astride his bad-tempered black stallion no matter our choice of creed, so stay humble and enjoy the ride. What I mean to say is, vanitas imagery is pretty cool, whether created then or now, for it both preaches to humankind how to deal with the big inevitable, but remains open to cathartic interpretations of artists and viewers exploring their own fallibility.

Jan Davidsz de Heim, Flower Still-life with Crucifix and Skull, 1630s, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Flower Still-life with Crucifix and Skull, 1630s, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

“Vanitas”, the Latin word for “vanity”, is a term that generally describes still-life compositions rife with deeply symbolic items which silently shouts spiritual messages about the brevity of life on Earth, the futility of a life lived in luxurious excess, and the heavenly permanence of the Church’s values. It is a term associated with one Bible verse in particular, “Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8) Talented realist painters working during the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century really refined the genre, drawing out the Reformation’s artistic response to the avarice and indulgences which permeated the Catholic Church. Vanitas paintings were very much the rage among Holland’s Protestant upper crust and moneyed merchants, especially from 1620 to 1650. By seeing or collecting all the moralistic symbolism they could, such patrons cloaked themselves in all the piety outwardly called for, while quietly consoling their own consciences in regard to their steadily amassing worldly gains.

Willem Kalf, Still-Life with a Nautilus Cup, 1662, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The objects so endowed with meaning in vanitas images are opulent goods that would have only graced the tables and pursuits of the truly rich. Pleasant things, surely, when first glanced upon with a magpie’s eye. And, ironically, such pictures only added to the splendour of the affluent’s interiors. But closer examination always casts these compositions in a light that is softly putrefying, as if the joy brought by such an enviable array of possessions died and began attracting flies long before the oil pigments had time to harden. Most often recurring are watches and hourglasses which remind viewers that time is constantly trickling past, and ought to be occupied wisely; books, chronometers, quills, inkpots, maps, burning candles and scrolls of parchment warn that secular knowledge can’t be carried along into the hereafter; transparent bubbles, bouquets of flowers, butterflies at rest and scurrying insects underline the transience of life, and offer a chance to metaphorically meditate on the fact we will all be popped, start to wilt or get squashed underfoot one day; shells, musical instruments and artist’s utensils, like brushes and palettes, are outright chastisements against extravagance, as only the elite could squander the hours beach combing, at private concerts and painting that just-right morning light or collecting a gallery full of canvases; chipped and knocked-over glassware and crockery nods to the fragility of all we hold dear while other basins and jars filled with water or oil ask us to cultivate and sustain purity where we find it; darkly glittering jewelry and fine clothing appear cold and lifeless, their bearer’s beauty gone to dust; smoked, tarnished mirrors beg not to be peered into;  silks dyed purple, shiny velvets and oriental rugs entice the touch but grimly anticipate the fraying of their own costly fibres; silver dishes offer piles of spotted, puckering fruit and platters of seafood repel slightly with glistening slime, wedges of peeling lemon at their edges pronouncing the bitter taste of empty stuff; and then there are the skulls. Looking out from so many universally understood hollow eye sockets, they are most direct of all momento mori, reminders that from dust we came forth and to dust we shall return.
Adriaen van Utrecht, Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull, c. 1642, private collection

Adriaen van Utrecht, Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull, c. 1642, private collection

Certainly there’s cheerier subject matter out there. Truly, I don’t wish to be the blogger that killed a thousand buzzes, I merely find vanitas paintings to be visual evidence that people living centuries ago had a rather healthy grip on the inescapable aspects of mortality. A grip I doubt is shared by many living in this especially money and youth-oriented age in which atheism is on the rise. Yet some artists today do continue to stare death in the face, to paint and sculpt and photograph reminders of natural life cycles lots of us understandably prefer to shut our eyes to. Their efforts are meant to unsettle and challenge viewers, while they’re still around to be unsettled and challenged.  And while more modern vanitas pieces might mock strict adherence to organised religion or make jests at common fears of the finite, they’re upholding a tradition which treasures a life gratefully lived, sans frills. Such an appreciation is more durable than ash and bone, and is perhaps the one good thing that doesn’t have to come to an end.

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007, platinum cast of an 18-century human skull, original teeth, 8,601 diamonds, White Cube Gallery, London


Fernando Vincente, Maternidad, 2007, acrylic on canvas


Luisa Caldwell, Last Call, 2010, fruit stickers and acrylic on wood panel


Jane Howarth, “Bonne Bouche Birds” series, 2008, taxidermied seagull from the 1930s with pearl innards, Saatchi Art

Sources: “Vanitas Painting: Still-Lifes with Biblical Messages”, Encyclopedia of Art Education// Levin Rodriguez, “Symbolic Meaning of Objects Used in Vanitas Painting”, The Berkemeyer Project
Emily Catrice

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