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.  Continue reading The lesson of vanitas