Just in case you forget that someday you will most certainly die, an entire art form exists to remind you of exactly that. It’s called vanitas painting – the name comes from the Latin word "vanity" – and it was intended to serve as a constant warning that no matter how many wonderful material things you may collect in your lifetime, unlike the great pharaohs of Egypt, you will not be taking that stuff with you to the afterlife. It was supposed to make you repent.
The genre largely gained momentum around 1550, and remained popular until its decline some 100 years later. The works first started to appear on the backs of other paintings. Apparently artists, who were supposedly busy trying to make a living by creating super flattering portraits of their patrons during the High Renaissance, didn’t think they were sufficiently occupied. That, or they were so overworked, exhausted, and tired of being broke, that they created an entire genre dedicated to celebrating the simple life.
The art form hails from the chilly shores of the once United Provinces of the Netherlands, which was a world-famous Calvinism hotspot during the late Renaissance. It was inspired by the opening lines of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Vanitas paintings typically contain collections of objects that are symbolic of the inevitability of death, and they are very closely related to memento mori still-lifes.
The main difference between the two styles lies it the fact that vanitas paintings tend to feature a lot more of the things that probably made you happy during your lifetime – at least temporarily. Still, the earliest incarnations of the genre were fairly somber and somewhat monochromatic compositions that usually contained a few objects, like books, and probably a couple of skulls and candles. Though they managed to eventually liven up – they fell from grace and into the annals of history shortly thereafter.
Regardless, during their heyday, vanitas paintings featured elements that ranged from symbols of the arts, sciences, and culture, to various representations of status, such as jewelry, gold, and fine clothing. They also depicted numerous reminders of people’s earthly pleasures, like playing cards, musical instruments, and fancy drinking goblets. Of course, they also showcased items associated with transience that ranged from clocks to flowers to bubbles.
The compositions characteristic of vanitas paintings were normally a bit of a mess. They were supposed to represent the emotional chaos that could stem from a life of materialism instead of piousness. But, in a truly ironic twist, they gradually became indicators of wealth and stature. Wanting to seem conservative and obedient, a lot of people commissioned works, driving up prices as a result. This, however, worked out very well for artists who, for 100 years, could actually afford dinner.
By German painter Barthel Bruyn the Elder (1493–1555)
Vanitas Still Life with Skull, Wax Jack and Pocket Sundial
By Dutch painter Harmen Steenwijck (1612 – 1656)
Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life
By Flemish painter Carstian Luyckx (1623 – 1675)
Circa 1640 to 1653
By Dutch painter Pieter Gerritsz van Roestraten (1630 – 1700)
Vanitas-Stillleben mit Violine, Notenbuch, Blumenvase und Schädel
By German painter Pierfrancesco Cittadini (1616 – 1681)