The lesson of vanitas

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:2, KJV

Over the course of our lives we must all confront death. Knowledge of our mortality can paralyse or invigorate. It can distract and destroy, or it can remind us to use what little time we have to focus on the important things, whatever they may be. It is little surprise that our fascination with death is found so readily in artwork, religion, cultural practice and, indeed, all human endeavour. Here I will briefly consider a specific genre of artwork, the vanitas painting, and how we might draw lessons from that theme.

“A vanitas painting contains a collection of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures.”
– Encyclopaedia Britannica

Vanitas paintings are interesting as they combine a moral, Christian message with rich painting of the very worldly things that the Christian mentality holds as futile. How, then, should we interpret the message of vanitas? First, we should consider the earlier definition of vanity (vanitas in Latin): futility. This is distinct from the modern meaning of the word. The Christian vanitas paintings juxtapose beautiful, worldly things with symbols of death and change to remind us that temporal things are not lasting and therefore futile when compared to the eternity of heaven. 

Following from this we get the following interpretation:

  1. What is temporal is transient
  2. In contrast, the afterlife is eternal
  3. Therefore we should live with heaven in mind — that is, we shouldn’t be caught up in hedonism and vice-filled lives, as that would deprive us of eternity

Temporal futility in the Christian paradigm is not intended to make us depressed or suicidal, but rather provides an impetus to live a Christ-like life, with virtues at the forefront of our lives rather than hedonism. Earthly pleasures can distract us from this Good Life.

St Jerome in his study - Durer
St Jerome in His Study – Durer, 1514

The Durer engraving above shows these two themes of living a saintly life and vanitas. We see the symbols of mortality and change, the skull and the hourglass, in St Jerome’s study. St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) and wrote on how to live a moral, Christian life to a cosmopolitan audience was aware that the distractions of city life — the Roman empire being famously hedonic at times — were an obstacle to living a Christian life.

The problem with this Christian interpretation of vanitas and futility is that if we do not believe in the existence of an afterlife, of heaven, then the impetus to live a good life is removed:

  1. What is temporal is transient, mortal and ultimately futile
  2. All is temporal
  3. Therefore, all is futile — thus, it doesn’t matter what we do

By removing the heaven assumption in the Christian paradigm, we are left with a dangerously nihilistic and depressing view of life. At best this interpretation means that we should try to live well even though everything is futile because we enjoy living well and even temporary, transient pleasure is better than nothing. But it does not give any guidance as to what living well means. Without a heaven or divine judgement, why worry about virtue and vice? Thus this futility interpretation encourages either pure hedonism or depression. Nietzsche recognises this problem with the Christian world view and says “Christianity… is nihilistic in the most profound sense” (Ecce Homo III, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ I).

As the Christian interpretation of vanitas is uninspiring without the assumption of heaven, we must look to another interpretation. Essentially, we must reject the premise that transience and mortality equate with futility. Knowledge of our inevitable death can crush us if we let it deprive our life of meaning.

One interpretation that discourages our vanities (used here in a more modern sense) is identifying things in life that have meaning beyond our own deaths. This interpretation is not flawless. After all, what has lasting meaning?

The interpretation of vanitas that I believe to be most useful does not answer the question why to live. Rather, I think that vanitas can serve as a helpful reminder that many of the things we covet and expend our efforts in pursuit of are in fact transient things. In this sense, vanitas provides perspective, not imperative. It should not make us despair, but rather prompt a reconsideration of what it is that we value and whether we are living consistently with those values.

Dust. We contain within us everything that has ever happened and everything that ever will happen: the air breathed by heroes and villains, the water drunk by kings and beggars, the sunlight shone upon knights and knaves. The tiniest essence of Napoleon Bonaparte is in my fingernail, a sprinkling of Caesar in my eyelash, a smattering of God in my blood. In time I too will pass into dust and become nourishment for a waterfowl, an imprint on a mountain façade and fuel for a brilliant star. What I have is borrowed. I live on lease. Death will come and my debts will be paid.

One thought on “The lesson of vanitas”

  1. The historic Jesus would be unlikely to have recognised the Christian theology of heaven and hell. The virtuous life Jesus preached, as far as we can tell from his parables, was to be rewarded very soon: ‘while some of you standing here’ will be swept into the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom was to be on earth, not above. With the non-appearance of God’s intervention in history that was to create the kingdom, the Christians put off their expectations into an Egyptian style afterlife, which was presumed to be eternal.
    So, the Christian hope is entirely conceptual, a pious hope. I prefer your purposeful and more thoughtful approach, not too different from the Dalai Lama who gave as his purpose for human life: “to be useful and happy”.

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