|Barthel Bruyn, Vanitas
Dutch, died 1555
The text reads "Everything falls into death; death is the ultimate limit of things"
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
New York, Metropolitan Museum
The inscription above the mirror reads "Human Vanity"
Flemish, c. 1530
The Hague, Mauritshuis Museum
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). Sometimes they could be brutally explicit, as in the print below. Here, the figure of a beautiful woman (above the waist) is revealed to be a rotten skeleton (below). She is framed by two vertical objects. To her right is a tall crucifix, with a banner around the shaft, bearing the words "O crux fidelis inter omnes Arbores" ("O faithful cross among all trees"). On her left is a palm tree with a banner bearing the words "Justus ut palma florebit in Domo Domini" extended on a floating banner by the words "Nemini parco qui vivit in orbe" .
|Luca Bertelli, Vanitas
Over time more the harshness became tempered, other 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. The mood became lighter and the fearsome Memento Mori began to transmute into the wistful moment of nostalgia, of remembrance of happier moments, of reflection on the transience of all things, rather than of fear of future judgment.
|Pieter Clauszoon_Vanitas with Tulip
Dutch, c. 1630
Otterlo, Kroeller-Mueller Museum
|Vincent Laurenzoon van der Vinne I, Vanitas
Paris, Musée du Louvre
The inclusion of the crown and the portrait of King Charles I of England
references the king's execution in January 1649.
|Pieter Boel, Vanitas
Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts
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, c. 1670-1672
Seville, Hospital de la Caridad
|Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers and Gilded Objects
Here the artist's self-portrait is in the form of several identical teeny reflections in the tall cup on the right. See the detail below.
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
Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum
The self-portrait in this work is a reflection in the glass ball.
|Antonio de Pereda, Vanitas
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
|Antonio de Pereda, The Knight's Dream
Madrid, Academia Real
© M. Duffy, 2012, update 2023
* 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. I would like to thank the anonymous reader who sent me this translation. It made much more sense than my own attempts. And with that corrected information I was able to find more information about the quotation.