6.3.10

Vanitas vanitatum • Omnia vanitas


SOUVIENS TOI QUE TU MOURRAS
Trop de crânes ! - "Une vanité, ce peut être une montre arrêtée, un luminaire éteint, une noix cassée, un verre ébréché, une plume rompue, un violon sans cordes, une fragile boule de verre, c’est le temps qui passe et la fragilité de l’existence. Ce peut même être une représentation plus subtile, plus codée. Ce ne doit pas nécessairement être une collection de crânes, qu’ils soient en diamants, en légumes, en mortadelle, en mouches confites ou en casseroles. Cette compétition de qui a fait le plus beau crâne [...] ne remplace pas une méditation sur la mort et c’est bien là la faiblesse des salles d’art contemporain de l’exposition “C’est la Vie !” au musée Maillol" (Lunettes rouges).

Philippe de Champaigne, Vanitas or Still Life with a Skull, 17th century. Oil on panel, 28 × 37 cm. Musée de Tessé, Le Mans

In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The word vanitas is Latin, meaning "emptiness" and corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all things. Ecclesiastes 1:2 from the Bible is the source of this notion (הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים..., הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל). The Vulgate renders the verse as Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. The verse is often translated as Vanity of vanities; all is vanity (and utterly meaningless).

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life, 1630. Oil on wood, 39.5 × 56 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague.

By 1630 the basic type of Dutch still life had been established. The objects in a still-life of this period are often given symbolic connotation and contain hidden symbolism relating to either the transience of things or the inevitability of death. The so-called vanitas theme is vanity not in the sense of vanity or conceit, but of the evanescence or emptiness of all earthly possessions. In the biblical book of Ecclesiastes everything is meaningless and pleasures become meaningless too: "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused myheart no pleasure. / My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward of all my labor. / Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I was toiled to achieve, / everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun."

Memento mori supported by sirens. Renaissance relief. Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Brescia. Stefano Bolognini

Vanitas themes were common in funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. By the 15th century these could be extremely morbid and explicit, reflecting an increased obsession with death and decay also seen in the Ars moriendi, Danse Macabre and the overlapping motif of the Memento mori. From the Renaissance such motifs gradually became more indirect, and as the still-life genre became popular, found a home there. Paintings executed in the vanitas style are meant as a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for many paintings of attractive objects.

Pieter Aertsen, Vanitas Still Life, 1552. Oil on wood, 60 x 101.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Pablo Picasso, Nature morte aux oursins, 1946. Musée Picasso, Paris

Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay like ageing; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled lemon, as well as accompanying seafood was, like life, attractive to look at, but bitter to taste.


Dutch School, Vanitas Still Life, oil on canvas, 17th Century. Sofitel Collection, Amsterdam

Symbols of Vanity on the gravestone of Michael Dorfwirth, 1836. Pfarrkirche St. Nikoaus, Haslach an der Mühl, Austria. Wolfgang Sauber

Ignacio de Ries, El Arbol de la Vida, Catedral de Segovia, 1653

Gravestone of Abigail Goble (with "Memento Mori" inscribed at top), Morristown, New Jersey, 1742. Kate Odgen

There is debate among art historians as to how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is implied in still lifes without explicit imagery such as a skull. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message.

Jan Gossaert, Trompe-l'oeil Skull, 1517. Wood, 43 x 27 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Iscr. He who thinks always of death can easily scorn all things.

Memento mori, 16th century. Ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bartholomäus Spranger, Nascendo morimur, after 1600. Oil. Wawel Castle, Krakow. Inscr. "HODIE MIHI, CRAS TIBI" - It's my lot today, yours tomorrow.

Visual resources: Vanitas, Jardin des Vanités, Memento mori, Nascendo morimur, Ars moriendi, Danse Macabre, Totentänze in der Weltliteratur, Personifications of Death.

The Living Death

Skeleton carrying Pitchers, mosaic from Pompeii; now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

Michael Wolgemut, "Totentaz" (The Dance of Death), from Hartman Schedel's Liber chronicarum, Nurember 1493

Nicolas Deutsch, Young Maiden and Death, 1517. Basel Kunstmuseum

Pre-Columbian sculpture, Head with Life and Death, Memento mori from Veracruz, Mesoamerica. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Sailko

Death and Soap Bubbles, stucco relief, 18th century. Holy Sepulcher Chapel, Michelsberg Cloister, Bamberg

For further discussion, see The Paradoxical Times
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