Vanitas Paintings Meditate on Death

June 8, 2024

Vanitas paintings meditate on the inevitability of death, which was a popular theme for European art during the 17th century. The concept is based on the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, which denounces all material wealth and pleasures as useless in comparison to the certainty of physical death. Although these works often include a skull as a symbol of physical death they can take a more hopeful approach to the subject or they could simply focus on enjoying the earthly goods and experiences while one is alive. The artists in Night Cafe’s current exhibition on 'vanitas' take the more hopeful approach to this subject; they want us to enjoy the present with the understanding that it can change at any moment.

While the subjects of vanitas paintings vary widely, they all feature meticulously arranged compositions of symbolic objects. Skulls and parts of skeletons are the most common symbols that remind viewers of their own mortality. Other common elements include snuffed out candles, wilting flowers and fruit that highlight the ephemerality of beauty, clay pipes trailing wisps of smoke that disappear into the ether and hourglasses that subtly reprimand those who waste time.

Other commonly seen symbols in vanitas paintings include books, musical instruments and scientific equipment that point to secular knowledge, artistry, literature and enlightenment. They also showcase trophies, coins, gold and other precious metals that represent wealth and power and crowns, swords and sceptres that symbolize worldly glory. By displaying these symbols, the artist encourages people to abandon the pursuit of material riches in favor of virtuous endeavours that will provide spiritual well-being in eternity.


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