Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Now Is the Time!

Barthel Bruyn, Vanitas
Dutch, died 1555
Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Krueller-Moeller
The text reads "Everything falls into death;
death is the ultimate limit of things"
“Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.

Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:
‘In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.’

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.”
(2 Corinthinas 5:20-21 and 6:1-2)
Second Reading from the Mass for Ash Wednesday*

“Now is the time, now is the day” St. Paul tells us in the portion of Second Corinthians that is read in Ash Wednesday Masses as we commence the annual observance of the penitential season of Lent. St. Paul is reminding us, quite passionately, that we must not waste time and wait for “tomorrow” to seek forgiveness and reform our lives. The time is now, for “tomorrow” may not come.

This same sense of the swift passage of time and the terrible instability of life inform a type of painting that appeared during a relatively short time in the history of Western art. These are in the genre of still life paintings known as the “Vanitas”.

Jacob de Gheyn II, Vanitas
Dutch, 1603
New York, Metropolitan Museum
The inscription above the mirror reads "Human Vanity"

Vanitas (vanity) paintings began to appear in the 16th century, but reach their peak numbers during the 17th century and disappear during the 18th century. Sometimes they are also called 'memento mori' (remember death) paintings. 

They were popular throughout northern Europe, including the Netherlands, France, England and Spain.  Therefore, they cut across the Catholic/Reformed religious divide of European society at the time.

The era in which they were popular was one filled with European wars (wars of religion, the Thirty Years War, the wars of Louis XIV), epidemics (the Plagues of Seville, London, Vienna) and "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to". 

Early images were fairly simple, often consisting of little more than a skull and extinguished candle and, possibly, an inscription attesting to the fragility of things (see above).

Over time more items were added.  Flowers, with their transient beauty, were obvious early additions.

Later on, the scenes became more and more crowded with objects of all kinds: musical instruments, books, drawings, crowns (both regal and papal), armor, clocks, money, mirrors, scientific instruments, statues, objects made of glass, bubbles, etc.

Pieter Boel, Vanitas
Flemish, 1663
Lille, Musee des Beauz-Arts

Vincent Laurenzoon van der Vinne I
Dutch, post-1649
Paris, Louvre
The inclusion of the crown and the portrait of King 
Charles I of England references the king's execution 
in January 1649

Simon Renard de Saint-Andre, Vanitas
French, 1650
Lyons, Musee des Beaux-Arts

Most often these works are devoid of people.  However, very occasionally they are populated, though not always by the living. In some, the skull is replaced by a complete skeleton (related to the skeletons that often appear during the same time period in tomb sculpture).

The greatest of these is the painting in the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville, Spain by the painter Juan de Valdes-Leal.  The skeleton, who is Death, is armed with scythe, shroud and coffin.  His bony hand extinguishes a candle and simultaneously points to an inscription that translates as "in the twinkling of an eye", a reminder of how quickly death devours earthly achievements.  
Juan de Valdes-Leal, Vanitas
Spanish, 1670-1672
Seville, Hospital de la Caridad

Occasionally an artist painted a self-portrait of himself as part of a Vanitas composition. Initially, the artists painted themselves as tiny reflections in shiny surfaces within the assemblage of still life, such as metal or glass objects.  However, as the17th century advanced, some began to paint themselves into the picture, as living examples of transience.  There is some debate about the meaning of these curious self-portraits.  Are they perhaps painted as an act of penitence?  Or are they clever demonstrations of the artist's power to overcome transience through his or her art?1

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers and Gilded Objects
Dutch, 1612
Karlsruhe, Kunsthalle
Here the artist's self-portrait is in the form of several identical teeny reflections in the tall cup on the right.

Clara Peeters, Detail of Still Life with Flowers and Gilded Objects showing 
the tiny self-portraits of the artist at her easel reflected in the shiny surface of the 
decorative knobs on the cup.

Pieter Clauszoon, Vanitas with Glass Ball
Dutch, 1628
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum
The self-portrait in this work is a reflection in the glass ball.
David Bailly, Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols
Dutch, 1651
Leiden, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal
In this picture the artist not only paints himself, he may also be playing with the idea of the transience of time.  The relevant quotation here is "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity".  It appears, in Latin, on the sheet of paper drooping from the table at the far right.  It has been proposed that the actual self-portrait is the painted minature being held by the artst who is self-portrayed as a young man.  By painting himself in two stages of life is he commenting on the transience of existence or is he demonstrating that his artistic skill can transcend time?
Edwaert Collier, Self-Portrait with Vanitas
Dutch, 1684
Private Collection
On the right of this picture is a sheet of paper which reads "Vita Brevis, Ars Lunga" (Life is short, art is long).
This spells out the ambiguity of some of these self-portrait images, reminders of both mortality and of the power of art.

Angels sometimes appeared as well. The Spanish painter Antonio de Pereda included angels in some of his works. In his Allegory of Vanity (1634), the angel holds a miniature portrait of the Emperor Charles V.  The angel balances it on a globe, and points to a location which appears to be somewhere off the northern coast of South America. Since Charles was long dead when the picture was painted, this may be a reference to the fact that Charles’ dominion over the New World availed him nothing against death.
Antonioi de Pereda, Vanitas
Spanish, 1634
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Similarly, the angel in the Knight’s Dream holds a banner which proclaims in Latin 'Eternally stinging, it flies and kills quickly”. “It” is the bow and arrow drawn in the center of the banner, a reminder that death can come quickly and make the items of vanity spread on the table in front of the dozing knight utterly worthless. 
Antonio de Pereda, The Knight's Dream
Spanish, 1655
Madrid, Academia Real

The meaning behind all these paintings is that of St. Paul, now is the time to repent.

© M. Duffy, 2012
*  Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

1.  For a review of the arguments see:  Celeste Brusati, "Stilled Lives:  Self-portraiture and self-reflection in seventeenth-century Netherlandish still-life painting", Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 20, No. 2/3 (1990 - 1991), pp. 168-182 at

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