Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas

Vanitas paintings of the 17th-18th centuries

A sumptuous and colourful decoration for a banqueting room, a virtuoso rendition of painterly skill, or a homily on the vanity of human existence?

The still-life paintings of the17th Century, in Europe in general and in the Low Countries in particular [known as Pronk Stilleven in those parts, meaning Splendid Still-Lives], are undoubtedly all of these.

The art historian, E. H. Gombrich said a painter might pick up any object that took his fancy, meticulously to depict the evanescent sheen of glass and metal, the luxurious texture of silk and tapestry, the voluptuous colour and bloom of fruit and flowers. He called such work the triumph of artistry over a trivial subject matter, but it is now agreed that the subject was paramount, and the choice of objects far from frivolous. Each item in the painting contributed to the melancholy sub-text of mortality and futility.

These paintings are usually, though not necessarily, opulent, the objects costly and modish. The immediate appeal of their surface magnificence is undermined on closer inspection by the emblematic significance of the objects, and by their often subtly imperfect condition.

The context of the vanitas still-life is usually some kind of banquet, or, if it is an arrangement of ostensibly unrelated objects, it contains material associated with eating, the most basic kind of conspicuous consumption.

It is easy to dismiss these works as meretricious entertainments, as self-congatulatory displays of the painter's technique, designed merely to enhance the decorative life of a privileged elite, but they also represent a vital element in the Baroque ethos. The 16th and 17th Centuries contained most of man's fundamental discoveries in art and science. Amid all the magnificence of, and pride in mankind's achievements winds a vein of melancholy, grotesquerie and pessimism. Time, Decay, Disease and Death are the eternal victors, conducting man to the ultimate arbiter, his Maker ........

The principal symbolic constituents of a vanitas still-life are as follows:

A LARGE TABLE, not unlike an altar; on it a rich pall, or a Turkey rug, often in a rumpled arrangement (perhaps to denote the turbulence of life?). It was customary to cover tables with carpet, a smaller white cloth of cotton or linen would be spread on top of it for eating. The designs of Islamic carpets had their own symbolism (formalised plant forms evoking gardens indoors or in the desert) of which 17th Century artists, used to working in metaphorical terms, could have been well aware.

FRUIT of all kinds, the more exotic the better, on a stand or in a bowl. A half-peeled lemon, with its brightly coloured curl of rind, is often a prominent feature. The impermanence of fruit is axiomatic, and sometimes it is actually depicted in a state of incipient decay; maggots and other pests may well put in an appearance.

FLOWERS in a vase; again an obvious symbol of transitory things. The blooms are usually fully blown, or indeed overblown, with falling petals. Bees, butterflies and other insects associated with plant-life, ephemeral in themselves, are often shewn in close proximity.

DEAD GAME, birds, animals or fish represent death in its most overt manifestation, the pretext for their inclusion is that they are ready for consumption, they may be in a butchered, prepared or even half-eaten state. A bright red lobster, probably, like the lemon, chosen for its striking colour and the challenge of capturing its texture and grotesque detail, is a favourite device.

BROKEN BREAD often accompanies other eating matter and is charged with obvious liturgical and atavistic meaning. Fruit, flesh, fish, fowl and flowers are frequently presented in the fashionable blue-and-white Oriental and Delft pottery of the period; it might be slightly damaged.

WINE and drinking vessels, a tankard, a Roemer goblet or a tall flute glass, with or without accompanying liquor and bottles, are almost always included. Norther European wines tend to be commonly white, but, although the wine most consumed at the time was usually red, gold coloured liquor is a favourite in these pictures.

A CANDLESTICK could be of any material, but the brilliance of metal or glass gave an opportunity for some bravura painting. The candle itself is always in an advanced state of its life (for obvious reasons). It may be burning, or, even more tellingly, just exinguished, so that a wisp of smoke drifts portentously into the air.

CLAY PIPES and other smoking equipment continue the symbolism of the transience of smoke ("a limbeck, or a fume..."), coupled with the censorious implications of time-wasting and pollution associated with smoking that obtained even then.

SOAP BUBBLES, their surface glitter, pompous inflation and hollow emptiness, provide an evocation offutility related to that of smoke. They are only occasionally seen in still even, as the figure developed into a
separate genre of its own: a child or naked putto playing with pipe and bowl to blow bubbles. The witch-ball, or crystal sphere, that often occurs in still-life pictures may be a variation on the theme.

GLOBES, astrolabes, maps, scientific instruments, and even occasionally, a model ship point to knowledge and exploration, and to the awareness of man's place in the world, the universe, and, by extrapolation, the after-world.

BOOKS, calligraphic materials and specimens of writing, often bearing portentous mottoes like Mors omnia vincit or Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas convey the tension between the (comparative) permanence of the written word, and the evanascent nature of the thought or spoken word, plus the ambivalence of learning and philosophy.

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS and manuscripts make a similar point, with the added poignancy of music's being a sign of an unspecific and contemplative aesthetic.

PAINTERS' EQUIPMENT, busts or small figures of sculpture are related to the above.

TIME-PIECES, watches, clocks, hour-glasses -- do we need to spell it out?

PLAYING-CARDS, the gambler's downfall, signify impermanence linked with folly, indulgence, deception and self-delusion. Tarot cards (The Hanged Man, Death etc.) add another layer of meaning.

MASKS are infrequently shown, but occur often enough to be noted. The symbolism is obvious, and related to the above.

JEWELLERY, money, gold and silver objets de vertu make an obvious point; "lucre" has always been "filthy" ...

THE HUMAN SKULL -- the ultimate memento mori.