(noun) - A vanitas painting
was a particular type of still life immensely popular in the Netherlands (and
Paris, to a lesser extent), beginning in the 17th century. The phrase comes to us
courtesy of a Biblical passage in Ecclesiastes, in which the Hebrew word
"hevel" was incorrectly taken to mean "vanity of vanities". But for this slight mistranslation, the term would rightfully be known as a "vapor painting". Be that as it may ...
A vanitas painting,
while possibly containing lovely objects, always included some reference to
man's mortality - most often a human skull (with or without other bones), but
also by way of burning candles, soap bubbles or decaying flowers. It was meant
not only to be a work of art, but also to carry an important moral message:
Trivial pleasures of life are abruptly and permanently wiped out by death, so
don't get too carried away during your earthly time, Bub.
It is doubtful that this genre would have been popular had the Counter-Reformation and Calvinism not
propelled it into the limelight.
 Hans J. Van
Miergroet: 'Vanitas', Grove Art Online, (Oxford University Press, Accessed 7
January 2005), http://www.groveart.com
'Still Life: An Allegory of the
Vanities of Human Life' by Harmen Steenwyck is a classic example of a Dutch
'Vanitas' painting. It is essentially a religious works in the guise of a still
life. 'Vanitas' paintings caution the viewer to be careful about placing too
much importance in the wealth and pleasures of this life, as they could become
an obstacle on the path to salvation. The title 'Vanitas' comes from a quotation
from the Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2, 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.'
The objects in this painting have
been chosen carefully to communicate the 'Vanitas' message which is summarized
in the Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures
on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not
destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure
is, there your heart will be also." Each object in the picture has a
different symbolic meaning that contributes to the overall message:
The skull, which is the focal point
of the work, is the universal symbol of death. The chronometer (the
timepiece that resembles a pocket watch) and the gold oil lamp, which has
just been extinguished, mark the length and passing of life.
The shell (Turbinidae), which
is a highly polished specimen usually found in south east Asia, is a symbol of
wealth, as only a rich collector would own such a rare object from a distant
land. Shells are also used in art as symbols of birth and fertility.
The books represent the range of
human knowledge, while the musical instruments suggest the pleasures of the
senses. Both are seen as luxuries and indulgences of this life.
The purple silk cloth is an example
of physical luxury. Silk is the finest of all materials, while purple was the
most expensive colour dye.
As a symbol, the Japanese Samurai
sword works on two levels. It represents both military power and superior
craftsmanship. These razor edged swords, which were handcrafted to perfection
by skilled artisans, were both beautiful and deadly weapons.
The stoneware jar at the right hand
edge of the picture probably contained water or oil; both are symbolic elements
that sustain life. Over the centuries, however, the oil paint that the artist
used has become transparent and it is starting to reveal the bust of a Roman
emperor painted beneath the water jar (mouse over the image to view).
This shows a change to the composition that the artist has made during the
painting of the still life. At some stage of the work he decided to swap the
more complex form of a sculpted bust for the simpler form of a stoneware jar.
This was probably because the Roman emperor was too dramatic an image to be
placed at the edge of the arrangement, as it detracted from the importance of
the skull as the painting's focal point.
The composition of the work also
amplifies the still life's symbolic meaning. In our illustration you can see
how Harmen Steenwyck has used the diagonals of the painting to construct its
arrangement. The objects which represent the 'Vanities of Human Life' fill the
lower half of the work which is split by a diagonal. The absence of form in the
upper half represents our spiritual existence. This is an empty space into
which we can project our beliefs and ideas as to what this means. In this space
a beam of light, which descends on the opposite diagonal, establishes the
dramatic tone of the work and symbolically suggests the link between this life
and the next. This beam also has two practical functions within the
composition: it illuminates the skull and acts as a counterbalance to the
triangular arrangement of objects in the lower section.
Steenwyck paints his images with incredible realism and astonishing skill.
This realism is meant to enhance the truth of the 'Vanitas' message.