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In this lesson, we will explore the use of vanitas in Northern European baroque art. We will define vanitas art, list its common motifs, and examine a couple of examples.

The Vanity of Life

You’re enjoying a nice collection of still life paintings at your local art museum. As you walk along, you admire the realistic look of the flowers and the fruit and other everyday objects that the artists depict in striking detail.

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Then something catches your eye and sets you back on your heels. Is that a skull?! What’s that doing in a still life painting? You’re not imagining things; you’ve just seen your first piece of vanitas art.Vanitas paintings developed out of the Protestant traditions of Northern Europe in the mid-16th century and flourished throughout the 17th century.

They are still life paintings, so they depict the objects of daily life in great detail and with stunning realism, but they also have a special focus. Vanitas paintings direct viewers’ attentions to the temporary nature of earthly life and the ever-present reality of looming death. Artists who painted vanitas works wanted their audiences to remember that the worldly wealth human beings desire will pass away and dissolve into dust.

Pleasures and treasures, human knowledge and achievements will all fade, and men and women themselves will all face decay and death. Vanitas paintings are specially designed to remind viewers of the verse of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes that proclaims that all earthly things are ‘vanity of vanities.’

Common Motifs in Vanitas Paintings

To fulfill their goals, artists who created vanitas paintings employed several common motifs and symbols:

  • Skulls are central to vanitas works, for they remind viewers of their mortality.
  • Objects like decaying flowers, rotting fruit, and snuffed candles also reveal the shortness of life.
  • Most vanitas works contain some symbol of passing time, like an hourglass or chronometer (a very exact timepiece).
  • Items like coins, crowns, gold, and jewelry symbolize fleeting worldly riches.
  • Other items like playing cards, luxurious fabrics, and wine glasses recall earthly delights and leisure activities that will soon pass away.

  • Still, other symbols, like weapons and armor, direct viewers’ attentions to fading worldly power.
  • The passing pleasures of earthly knowledge are represented in objects like books, maps, musical instruments, pens, and telescopes.

These items are usually presented in a rather cluttered and chaotic fashion, scattered here and there throughout the painting, with some carelessly tipped on their sides as if to suggest that they aren’t very important at all.

A Couple of Vanitas Paintings

Let’s see how all of these motifs and symbols come together by looking at a couple vanitas paintings.

Painting

The first is titled Allegory of Vanity, and it was painted by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado in the 1630s. The painting’s primary figure is an angel pointing to a globe.

This angel is surrounded by objects that are fleeting and will eventually disappear, including the world itself, as the angel seems to suggest. A clock and an hourglass stand nearby, indicating the passage of time, while money, jewelry, and a delicate little perfume bottle remind the viewer of the wealth that will one day fade away. Armor and weapons also lie nearby in a disheveled pile, for military might will dwindle, too.

Other symbolic elements include playing cards (leisure), closed books (earthly knowledge), a coin with an image (perhaps a long-dead emperor), and a dark, snuffed candle. Several skulls lie in various positions and states of wholeness; one is even upside down as a grotesque reminder of how the human body will one day end up. Viewers may wonder if these skulls once belonged to the people in the portraits in the angel’s hand and on the right side of the painting. As detailed and interesting as this painting is, it is also rather disturbing in its symbolic reminders that life is quickly passing away, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.

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