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Vanitas by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado Antonio de Pereda - Allegory of Vanity - Google Art Project.jpg
Vanitas by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado

A vanitas is a symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. Best-known are vanitas still lifes, a common genre in Netherlandish art of the 16th and 17th centuries; they have also been created at other times and in other media and genres. [1]

In philosophy, temporality is traditionally the linear progression of past, present, and future. However, some modern-century philosophers have interpreted temporality in ways other than this linear manner. Examples would be McTaggart's The Unreality of Time, Husserl's analysis of internal time consciousness, Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (1927), George Herbert Mead's Philosophy of the Present (1932), and Jacques Derrida's criticisms of Husserl's analysis, as well as Nietzsche's eternal return of the same, though this latter pertains more to historicity, to which temporality gives rise.

Ephemerality that which only exists briefly

Ephemerality is the concept of things being transitory, existing only briefly. Typically the term ephemeral is used to describe objects found in nature, although it can describe a wide range of things, including human artifacts intentionally made to last for only a temporary period, in order to increase their perceived aesthetic value. With respect to unique performances, for example, it has been noted that "[e]phemerality is a quality caused by the ebb and flow of the crowd's concentration on the performance and a reflection of the nostalgic character of specific performances". Because different people may value the passage of time differently, "the concept of ephemerality is a relative one".

Still life art genre

A still life is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which are either natural or man-made.



The Latin noun vanitas (from the Latin adjective vanus 'empty') means 'emptiness', 'futility', or 'worthlessness', the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and pursuits are transient and worthless. [2] It alludes to Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8 , where vanitas translates the Hebrew word hevel, which also includes the concept of transitoriness. [3] [4] [5]

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.

Ecclesiastes book of the Bible

Ecclesiastes is one of 24 books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, where it is classified as one of the Ketuvim. Originally written c. 450–200 BCE, it is also among the canonical Wisdom Books in the Old Testament of most denominations of Christianity. The title Ecclesiastes is a Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Kohelet, the pseudonym used by the author of the book.


Pier Francesco Cittadini from 17th century school Pier Francesco Cittadini Vanitas-Stillleben.jpg
Pier Francesco Cittadini from 17th century school

Vanitas themes were common in medieval 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, the 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 were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for painting attractive objects .

<i>Ars moriendi</i> 15th century Latin texts

The Ars moriendi are two related Latin texts dating from about 1415 and 1450 which offer advice on the protocols and procedures of a good death, explaining how to "die well" according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages. It was written within the historical context of the effects of the macabre horrors of the Black Death 60 years earlier and consequent social upheavals of the 15th century. It was very popular, translated into most West European languages, and was the first in a western literary tradition of guides to death and dying. About 50,000 copies were printed in the incunabula period before 1501.

<i>Danse Macabre</i> artistic motif on the universality of death

The Danse Macabre, also called the Dance of Death, is an artistic genre of allegory of the Late Middle Ages on the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the Dance Macabre unites all.

<i>Memento mori</i> Latin phrase and its meaning

Memento mori is the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. It is related to the ars moriendi and similar Western literature. Memento mori has been an important part of ascetic disciplines as a means of perfecting the character by cultivating detachment and other virtues, and by turning the attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife.


Vanitas by Harmen Steenwijck Harmen Steenwijck - Vanitas.JPG
Vanitas by Harmen Steenwijck

Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit (decay); bubbles (the brevity of life and suddenness of death); smoke, watches, and hourglasses (the brevity of life); and musical instruments (brevity and the ephemeral nature of life). Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled lemon was, like life, attractive to look at but bitter to taste. Art historians debate how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is implied in still-life paintings 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. [6]

Composition of flowers is a less obvious style of Vanitas by Abraham Mignon in the National Museum, Warsaw. Barely visible amid vivid and perilous nature (snakes, poisonous mushrooms), a bird skeleton is a symbol of vanity and shortness of life.

Abraham Mignon German-Dutch still life painter

Abraham Mignon or Minjon, was a still life painter. He is known for his flower pieces, still lifes with fruit, still lifes in forests or grotto as well as still lifes of game and fish and garland paintings. His works are influenced by those of Jan Davidszoon de Heem and Jacob Marrel.

National Museum, Warsaw National museum in Warsaw, Poland

The National Museum in Warsaw, popularly abbreviated as MNW, is a national museum in Warsaw, one of the largest museums in Poland and the largest in the capital. It comprises a rich collection of ancient art, counting about 11,000 pieces, an extensive gallery of Polish painting since the 16th century and a collection of foreign painting including some paintings from Adolf Hitler's private collection, ceded to the Museum by the American authorities in post-war Germany. The museum is also home to numismatic collections, a gallery of applied arts and a department of oriental art, with the largest collection of Chinese art in Poland, comprising some 5,000 objects.

Vanitas by Jan Sanders van Hemessen Lille Hemessen vanitas.JPG
Vanitas by Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Outside visual art

Robert Schumann German composer

Robert Schumann was a German composer, pianist, and influential music critic. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. Schumann left the study of law, intending to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist. His teacher, Friedrich Wieck, a German pianist, had assured him that he could become the finest pianist in Europe, but a hand injury ended this dream. Schumann then focused his musical energies on composing.

An oratorio is a large musical composition for orchestra, choir, and soloists. Like most operas, an oratorio includes the use of a choir, soloists, an instrumental ensemble, various distinguishable characters, and arias. However, opera is musical theatre, while oratorio is strictly a concert piece – though oratorios are sometimes staged as operas, and operas are sometimes presented in concert form. In an oratorio the choir often plays a central role, and there is generally little or no interaction between the characters, and no props or elaborate costumes. A particularly important difference is in the typical subject matter of the text. Opera tends to deal with history and mythology, including age-old devices of romance, deception, and murder, whereas the plot of an oratorio often deals with sacred topics, making it appropriate for performance in the church. Protestant composers took their stories from the Bible, while Catholic composers looked to the lives of saints, as well as to Biblical topics. Oratorios became extremely popular in early 17th-century Italy partly because of the success of opera and the Catholic Church's prohibition of spectacles during Lent. Oratorios became the main choice of music during that period for opera audiences.

Giacomo Carissimi was an Italian composer and music teacher. He is one of the most celebrated masters of the early Baroque or, more accurately, the Roman School of music. Carissimi established the characteristic features of the Latin oratorio and was a prolific composer of motets and cantatas. He was highly influential in musical developments in north European countries through his pupils and the wide dissemination of his music.

In modern times

See also

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  1. Search for 'vanitas' at Harvard Art Museums:
  2. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, s.v.
  3. Daniel C. Fredericks, Coping with Transience: Ecclesiastes on Brevity in Life, p. 15 and passim
  4. Ratcliffe, Susan (October 13, 2011). Oxford Treasury of Sayings and Quotations. Oxford: OUP. p.  127. ISBN   978-0-199-60912-3. ISBN   0-19960912-8.
  5. Delahunty, Andrew (October 23, 2008). From Bonbon to Cha-cha. Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases. Oxford: OUP. p.  360. ISBN   978-0-199-54369-4. ISBN   0-19954369-0.
  6. For more on this topic, see The Living Dead: Ecclesiastes through Art, exh. cat. edited by Corinna Ricasoli, Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh 2018, and the bibliography therein.